This week’s release of War for The Planet of the Apes concludes one of the most successful recent cinematic trilogies. What Matt Reaves and Andy Serkis have concocted in their third and final outing is nearly miraculous, and totally in keeping with the rest of the Planet of the Apes franchise. I also hope that it sparks new viewers to travel back to the saga that Charlton Heston built. It’s a series of films steeped in misery as well as adventure, and they have a lot more on their mind than your typical sci-fi exploit. War certainly spurred me to revisit the films, and I found myself compelled to craft a definitive ranking.
Lists are obviously the product of their creators. As such, I must be honest with those ready to throw sticks and stones in my direction. I do not dislike a single film in the lot. We’re talking varying degrees of love here. Please feel free to continue the conversation and tweet @MouthDork with your own definitive lists.
9. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
This is a tremendously disappointing entry to close out the original series of films. Billed as “The Final Chapter” on the franchise, Battle promised to reveal just how the Apes finally hammered the nail in the coffin of the human race. Sadly, as the budgets rapidly decreased with each film, the titular “Battle” was barely a skirmish between humans driving jeeps and a few apes on horses. I do really enjoy John Huston’s Lawgiver prologue, and the addition of Paul Williams as a friendlier, wannabe-Dr. Zaius is certainly a fun watch. The rage last seen in Roddy McDowell’s Caesar is barely an emotional blip, and his wise king routine just feels dishonest in light of the riotous climax of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (more on that later).
8. Planet of the Apes (2001)
The film most responsible for my own departure from the fandom of Tim Burton, the 2001 remake of the 1968 original trades the jerkish machismo of Charlton Heston for the generic heroism of Mark Wahlberg. The tone is all over the place, the cynical moralizing against the human race is obviously absent, and the new twist climax is utterly baffling. However, Rick Baker’s makeup work on the film is gorgeous, and the sole reason to put you through the torturous running time. The combination of Baker’s work and Tim Roth’s villainous scenery-chewing make the big bad chimpanzee, General Thade, endlessly watchable. The film may also supply Danny Elfman’s last great film score as well. It’s a wreck and probably best watched apart from any of the other Planet of the Apes films.
7. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
This film had the unenviable task of following up the original masterpiece without the full involvement of its star. Charlton Heston agreed to do the film only if his scenes could be completed within two weeks and that his character would be killed off in the end. The producers obliged him by destroying the whole planet. Beneath the Planet of the Apes manages to cram in more anti-human sentiment by focusing on a group of irradiated mutants living below the planet’s surface. A collection of fools who worship the potential beginning of new life as well as the end of the current mess via the atomic bomb (a.k.a. The Alpha and The Omega). If you thought the original film’s Statue of Liberty conclusion was a bit grim then Beneath would leave you shuffling out the theater in total despair. This is the only film in the original set of five to be filmed without Roddy McDowell, and his presence is absolutely missed. James Franciscus is an adequate stand-in for Charlton Heston, but his heroism is maybe just as generically bland as Mark Wahlberg’s stranded air force captain.
6. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Taking the obligatory graphic detail approach to origin storytelling seen in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Rise of the Planet of the Apes chronicles in great detail the early steps that were taken by god-complexed scientists that arose the apes a few steps higher on the food chain. I remember thinking when I first saw the trailers, “Why bother?” However, as the sequels would continue to enforce, Rise has very little interest in connecting to the original saga, and we should all thank our lucky stars. Director Rupert Wyatt uses the impending doom of the Planet of the Apes to explore our inability to shed the fear of the other, and how a lack of compassion could result in disaster. Sure, the film probably spends too much time with James Franco’s well-meaning scientist, but as baby chimp Caesar needs a good portion of screen time to grow disenfranchised with humanity, the human players remain essential to engage the shame/disgust/sympathy of the audience. The combination of Weta’s motion-capture workers and Andy Serkis’ performance solidifies this new era of digital makeup, and we’ve all been aching to see their game-changing work acknowledged since this film’s premiere.
5. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
Here is a weird blend of fish-outta-water comedy and all-us-humans-suck moralizing. After the destruction of the Planet of the Apes in Beneath, three chimpanzee scientists escape on James Franciscus’ rocket ship and are propelled back into Earth’s glorious past of 1973. The tone jumps all over the place as Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter) navigate their newfound celebrity as time-traveling apes. The media lavishes them with gifts while the government begins to freak out about the inevitable doom they represent. Just as they’re starting to settle into their environment, a human hunting party is formed, and both Cornelius and Zira are chased down in what has to be one of the harshest conclusions in cinematic history. There is a glimpse of hope as their son Milo is hidden away within Ricardo Montalban’s circus, but naturally, for this series, the sequel would reveal only more sorrow.
4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
After the final moments of Rise reveal the species-leveling catastrophe of the Simian Flu, Dawn sees the scraps of humanity struggling to remain dominant on the planet. Andy Serkis’ Caesar carries the weight of his people on his shoulders, and he must determine if the humans who once enslaved him are worthy of his compassion. He may be infected by his memories of love for James Franco, but the hatred that resides within Kobo (his right-hand chimp) will force Caesar to engage in battle rather than compromise. Stepping behind the camera, Matt Reaves brings a singular vision to the visual storytelling and a sincere trust that Serkis’ mo-cap character is enough to capture our attention.
3. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
Baby Milo last seen speaking his first words during the final frame of Escape has grown into a spitting image of his father. As the son of Cornelius, Roddy McDowell is allowed to shed most of his good will as Milo casts off his birth name for the righteous rank of Caesar. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is a film simmering with rage at the injustices witnessed in contemporary America. Set in the near future of 1991, Conquest recounts the first uprising of the Apes against the humans who would have them for their slaves. McDowell gives his finest performance as Caesar, leading the charge against the police, and spitting venom at an audience who probably only wanted a good night out at the movies. I’ve written about this film more than any other because I cannot ignore the relatable terror it strikes in our current political climate. A brutal, angry film, Conquest represents that volatile mixture of entertainment and commentary we so desperately crave in modern science fiction.
2. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
War for the Planet of the Apes is an astonishing work of blockbuster entertainment. It concludes one of the rarest of trilogies, one in which each subsequent film is superior to the last and actually improves the quality of the previous film. Unable to prevent war with the humans, Caesar must embrace his skills as a tactician to ensure the survival of his people. The war has been long and filled with tragedy. Caesar must either learn from the sins of Koba, or he must embrace the spirit of vengeance against those that have done his people harm. In Caesar, Andy Serkis has his most iconic character. He has been given three films to develop him from infancy to adulthood, and it’s an accomplishment made possible only through motion capture artistry. The Serkis Trilogy (no other can claim such a hold) will go down as a significant moment in the history of filmmaking, and thankfully it’s one struck with remarkable story, character, heart, as well as a technical feat.
1. Planet of the Apes (1968)
There simply can be no other film at the top. Based on an unmemorable novel by Pierre Boulle, given the once-over by Rod Serling, and eventually adapted by screenwriter Michael Wilson, Planet of the Apes is definitely an adventure film, but one steered to a devastating condemnation of our own race towards death by Charlton Heston’s egomaniacal Colonel Taylor. Stranded on a hazardous planet governed by religious zealotry, Heston attempts to confront their ignorance before resulting in brute force. Made memorable by its twist ending, if you have not actually seen the original film because you’ve been spoiled by one too many parody sketches, fear not! Like the best classics, there is a lot more to discover than its most talked about moments. You will revel in the assholery on display from Charlton Heston. The second his feet hit the earth, the astronaut is tearing into the idiocy of our society and excited to take down any threat to his own supremacy. This is all a careful construction to topple not only his self-image but our own. We are not worthy of our planet.
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