I have now seen every Planet of the Apes movie.
I started watching the series as preparation for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. When I started I’d only seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Now I’ve seen every film to bear the Apes title, and a bit of the TV show. It seemed weird to end this undertaking without some sort of retrospective, some sort of final send off. I’ve already covered my opinions on the series as a whole, and I stand by them. Planet of the Apes is one of the best franchises I’ve ever watched through, and certainly the best science fiction franchise I’ve watched. So here’s a recap and reflection on the series, and a silly little ranking.
The one that started it all. Here was my initial reaction:
“Yes, I liked this movie. I liked it a whole lot. I’m not one of those people incapable of contextualizing and enjoying movies older than a decade, so I was pretty much predisposed towards loving this movie. It’s a major pinnacle of popular culture. (How many times has the film’s end been parodied? I can immediately think of two, but I suspect The Simpsons alone would have imitated that scene more than twice.) But beyond that, it’s just legitimately well crafted.”
The film is a classic and a franchise starter for a reason. It’s well acted, well shot, well written. It introduces two characters, and actors, that would go on to anchor the franchise. It’s political and compelling and tense. It’s pretty much a perfect film. And I loved it right away:
“I’ve come out of Planet of the Apes more excited for this reviews project than when I went in; I expected to like this film, but I liked it so much that I’m even more into my planned viewing. Here’s hoping the sequels can retain this quality. If they’re even half as entertaining as this one. it’ll be worth the time.”
Beneath the Planet of the Apes
Basically Charlton Heston’s attempt at destroying the franchise, it didn’t work, and just forced the next movie to be weirder. This ones’s plenty weird enough though:
“The tone of this film is pretty different. The first film took itself very seriously, which was really great. This one still plays its concept completely straight, but it’s far less respectable in tone. It’s a little more action heavy, a little pulpier, a little slower in spots despite being shorter over all. But it makes up for it by being completely fucking weird. This movie’s plot seriously sounds like a hilarious metal concept album, and it completely commits to it. Which I love. It’s such a seriously bizarre little movie and, while parts of it are definitely clunky, it’s hard not to adore the sheer audacity of the ideas at play here.”
It’s not exactly a great movie. But holy shit it’s weird. Underground psychic aliens, underground psychic aliens fighting intelligent apes, flaming bleeding religious idols, religion based around nukes, and eventually Charlton Heston blows up an entire planet.
“Turns out a bunch of humans are still alive, and they’ve remained relatively unchanged in this time. Except for their psychic powers of course. They also worship an unexploded atomic bomb. They separate Brent (who they were controlling earlier when he tried to murder Nova) from Nova and interrogate him. Meanwhile the apes march towards the forbidden zone. The apes are faced with a psychic illusion designed to deter them – a wall of flaming, crucified apes in front of a giant statue of their god. The statue of their god is, naturally, bleeding. Isn’t this franchise meant to appeal to a younger audience? Anyway they get past the illusion. The psychics, who, it turns out, are just wearing people masks and are actually deformed mutants, put Brent in a cage with Taylor and force them to fight to the death. It’s probably the best fight scene in the film, despite looking like Charlton Heston is fighting a diminutive clone.
But then the apes storm the underground hideaway! There’s fighting. Nova dies, Brent gets shot, and it’s surprisingly graphic. It ends when Taylor, shot and bleeding, detonates the atomic bomb and DESTROYS THE ENTIRE WORLD.”
Escape from the Planet of the Apes
So this one couldn’t be set on the titular planet. That didn’t slow the movie down at all, it just gave it the push towards stranger waters:
“1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes was marked with several challenges right from the get go. Charlton Heston was gone, the budget was dwindling, and the last film ended with the complete destruction of the titular planet. This all meant the sequel would have to be a major divergence when compared to the first two films. Instead of introducing new characters, the decision was made to focus on the two characters we don’t see die at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes – Zira and Cornelius. Zira and Cornelius were plainly the best characters in the first two films, so it’s actually pretty exciting they’re back for more. Because we don’t actually see them die in Beneath, they retcon the ending a wee bit. Turns out, another ape-scientist was working on understanding Taylor’s spaceship from the first film. He and Zira and Cornelius were in the spaceship when the nuke destroyed the planet, and the force of the blast combined with the ship sent them back in time. Listen, it’s not Primer or anything, but we can’t hold that against it.”
Yeah, so this one starts as a comedy and turns into a full on tragedy. Zira gets shot, her baby gets murdered, Cornelius shoots her killer and dies in the process, and fade to black… Well actually that’s not true at all, the movie ended with a reveal – Zira and Cornelius’ baby was swapped for a normal ape. Raised in captivity the ape, with it’s superior intelligence, acts as the catalyst for the planets transition away from humans and towards apes.
“This franchise just gets weirder and weirder. This movie actually handles its unbelievably harsh tone shift better than it should – because this movie seriously goes from funny talking chimpanzees in clothes to baby-murder with alarming speed and deftness. There’s definitely still some political stuff rolling around beneath the surface, even if it does seem to be a crude anti-abortion message. Nothing about this movie should be good, and yet I was thoroughly entertained. I might even call it good, even if much of the appeal may be due to the talented leads. But again, on paper, exactly zero portions of this movie should be good, so that’s an achievement.”
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
This might be my favourite of the original series. It’s not the best, but it’s so very enjoyable:
“Their uprising is glorious. It feels so thrilling and deserved, and watching this ragtag bunch of apes armed with household supplies taking down a tightly organized militant group of guards in riot gear is only the best thing ever. The action is actually pretty good. It’s definitely better than anything in Beneath the Planet of the Apes by a mile. None of it’s amazing, but because it feels so earned and because it’s at least visually interesting (even when poorly presented), it makes for a great sequence. Flamethrowers and gorillas are pretty cool, but it only proves how much of a difference characters you actually like makes.
“Things start to go downhill as Caesar switches into full-on dictator mode. That same nice human gets concerned and starts having a fairly cliched “you’re taking this too far” moment with Caesar. Caesar gives an incredibly prescient speech about the future subjugation of humanity – all sorts of things about the apes waiting until people get nuked and then taking over and enslaving them. It’s honestly a little too specific to the events we know are coming, but Roddy McDowall sells it, transforming it into a pretty great moment. One of the apes speaks out though. A female ape who has been eyeing Caesar this whole time looks at him and hoarsely imitates the word she probably heard the most – “No.” Caesar has a change of heart and decides to rule with compassion. And then the movie ends. It’s a great final scene. And the fact that it’s the end totally justifies the slightly over-the-top speech. “The ending is the conceit” after all.
“It’s a pretty fucking strong movie, and it’s the fourth movie in a series about talking apes. This proves we couldn’t possibly be in the darkest timeline.”
Aside from the Community reference I think that’s a pretty accurate representation if the movie – fucking strong. It’s very confident and it pays off.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes
Sadly the worst of the original series:
“It’s not a terrible ending, or a terrible movie. It’s definitely the fifth best film though. It’s the one that offers the fewest incentives to rewatch it. No great filmmaking, no crazy premises, not really that entertaining. The others all have something, or many somethings, that elevate them. Battle for the Planet of the Apes doesn’t even try for a grand theme the way the others did. There’s some general social concern, but not really a boldly overstated political statement the way the others have, and that’s pretty sad. It’s not nearly so bad as to kill my newfound love for the series, but I was hoping it would be, at the very least, more interesting.”
The missed opportunity still bums me out.
“Battle for the Planet of the Apes may be disappointing, but the franchise reigns supreme. It’s just fucking better than any other science fiction franchise out there. It’s also more fun than most of them. Plus two of the movies aren’t just interesting or fun flicks about super intelligent apes; they’re legitimately great. Four out of five films in a series being this watchable? This entertaining? This interesting? It’s a pretty great series, even if it ends on a bland note.”
This movie is the pits.
“Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes is bad, boring, bland movie. It’s populated by bad, boring, bland characters. Generally these characters are played by entertaining actors, like Tim Roth and Paul Giammatti. This is excepting Mark Wahlberg, who comes across as bad, boring, and bland when forced into a generic leading man role. This is also excepting the human female lead. She is an attractive human female and literally nothing else. This should also not include Helena Bonham Carter, whose character is uncomfortable to watch. In fact most of the fun cast is given so little to do that any second of movie that’s actually entertaining is countered by two or three that are bad, boring, and bland. It’s definitely the worst movie of the franchise, and we should all be glad they never got to make more. Rick Baker is awesome though. Filmmakers! Keep giving him your money. Studios! Maybe start letting Tim Burton dick around in his own corner and keep him away from your tent poles. Apes fans! Join me next week for more.”
No amount of Rick Baker make up could save this junk. Also this:
“Helena Bonham Carter’s character is…interesting. Like all the character’s in this movie she’s completely devoid of character development. In fact the complete lack of character development in this film is distractingly consistent. No one grows, no one changes, no one waivers. It’s so incredibly stagnant. But Helena Bonham Carter is unique because she’s surreally sexualized. I mean, there’s a generic blonde lead in tattered rags throughout this movie, but Helena Bonham Carter is dressed in full ape make-up and the movie spends a remarkable amount of her screen time attempting to generate weird chemistry between her and Mark Wahlberg. This movie was the starting point of her relationship with Tim Burton. There’s a joke here to be made about the ape make-up, but Sequart is too classy to make it.
“(The joke is that Tim Burton is secretly attracted to chimpanzees, if you couldn’t tell.)”
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The first of the new wave of Planet of the Apes movies! This is a good new series that’s loaded with potential and this was a fine start (lengthy quite but I think it’s necessary):
“Maybe that’s what most stood out to me upon rewatching Rise of the Planet of the Apes – it’s not really a proper Planet of the Apes movie.
“Which isn’t to say it’s a bad addition to the series or anything. I still stand by my claim that it counts as one of the superior films in the Apes series, but it doesn’t really fit in the way I’d like.
“For one thing the thematics are just too bland and on the nose. A big part of what makes the series unique is their thematics. Most of the films have topical yet nearly perpetually relevant thematic through-lines. They all use the ridiculous science fiction premise to comment on society and people and world affairs. Rise of the Planets of the Apes takes the safest, most obvious route imaginable with a thematic point that amounts to “animals belong in the wild and maybe also we shouldn’t abuse them too much you guys.” There’s a lot of set up that could’ve led to some interesting commentary on animal testing, but it never really goes anywhere. It’s just too narrow and obvious a focus for a Planet of the Apes movie.
“Which also means the ending hits way too gently. If there’s anything the Planet of the Apes movies have in spades, it’s bleak, heavy handed, delightfully powerful endings. The Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes all conclude with brutal thematic-gut punches. Actually leaning in to the weird disconnect the ending brings and presenting the apes rebellion as something fearful and unpleasant might have been interesting. But instead the ending is light-handed and almost inconsequential in every which direction. Hell the destruction of the human race basically plays out underneath the credits as an infographic.
“There also aren’t nearly enough apes. Really only Caesar gets more than a broad brushstroke of characterization. The movie definitely needed to cast the human characters aside and purely zero in on Caesar. Not to do obnoxious couch-rewritings but here’s what I feel would have helped this movie work a little better:
“ONE: Showing us apes in the wild. We only see apes in captivity. I can’t help but think that having Caesar come from the wild would’ve helped established how much his captivity sucked. Or maybe not Caesar but a longer and more powerful scene with his mother would’ve served the same purpose. Letting the redwoods hit the audience as a reminder of the forest would’ve surely helped, as opposed to essentially only letting them contrast Caesar’s good home life.
“TWO: Let James Franco be a secondary character. Sure John Lithgow’s subplot is sad and all, but it never really leads anywhere thematically in the long run. Letting the movie follow Caesar’s point of view all the way through, or crafting a cleaner more effective break between the human half and the ape half, would’ve gone a long way to keeping the movie’s blander stretches compelling.
“THREE: Sort the ending out. Either cast the apes’ final actions as shockingly cruel or triumphant and satisfying. Make Franco’s involvement way more important.
“But please, don’t mistake these complaints as me being overly dismissive of what is a fairly good movie. Rise of the Planet of the Apes really does serve as a testament to how well the basic tenets of storytelling work. It’s engaging, entertaining, and emotional. It’s just not as engaging, as entertaining, or as emotional as it could have been.”
Got it? Got it. Moving on.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Amazing, I love it, one of the best Planet of the Apes movies:
“Despite not having a franchise-shatteringly weird ending Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is far more deserving of the Apes title than Rise of the Planet of the Apes, or even Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The main thing that sets it apart from Rise is the fact that the apes are the film’s true main characters. Sure it’s not a Planet of the a Apes movie without some wooden human characters, but it has some of most engaging ape characters yet. Certainly the most engaging ape characters not played by Roddy McDowall. It even has more engaging secondary ape character than any other modern Apes movie.
“Another element that clearly sets Dawn of the Planet of the Apes firmly in the category of “true Apes film” is the ending. In true Dawn of the Planet of the Apes fashion the movie has a bleak and devastating conclusion. It’s a pointed thematic barb wonderfully designed to catch in your brain, and it works as well as the best Ape endings. I would say it wasn’t as iconic as the original, but to be honest I’ve already quoted it a ton. Its clearly one of the more functional finales the Apes series has to offer.
“Which is why it seems to be getting such rave reviews. Sure, the movie is rather flawed. Some bland characters, some clearly missing scenes, and some scenes that feel way less propulsive and connected than they should. The thematics, however, are so on point, so effective, and so powerful the movie is winning people over. We want our movies to have a well executed artistic point, and to see a movie do it this well despite being a summer blockbuster is so welcome critics can’t help but celebrate it.”
Good movie. Gooooood movie.
In fact good series. Gooooooood series:
“A franchise should also be a little more haphazard. There should be a distinctly inconsistent story. Well. Not necessarily inconsistent, but there certainly shouldn’t be a plan for all the films from the get go. The Harry Potter films are about the only movies excluded by this definition. Eight films with a plethora of different directors seems ripe for franchise status, but the fact that it was intended to be seven films from the get go changes things. No comment on how this will change when the spin-off comes out, because thinking about that hurts my brain. (Just for the record I’m not entirely convinced these films would actually usurp Planet of the Apes from its throne.)”
I did a thing and found Apes to be the best franchise, mathematically speaking:
“Now the Planet of the Apes series? I haven’t seen Burton’s but we’ll count it as a bad film. That leaves us with a ratio of 5/7. Whoa. That’s better than or comparable to all of them.”
That ratio is now 6/8, just so we are all clear.
Ranking movies is a distinctly weird thing, a lot like assigning a review a score. I sort of don’t think either is necessary, but still happily read critics that do. I don’t ever do scores with my reviews, but it’s something I’ve thought about, and something that I will do in conversation. They’re both interesting mental exercises to me – an interesting meeting of the inherently subjective nature of film criticism and objective statements of quality. I always find attempts at more objective film criticism fascinating, so perhaps that’s why it appeals.
So of course the natural question is how would I rank every Apes movie. So, below, ordered from worst to best, my 100% incontestable Planet of the Apes ranking:
8 – Planet of the Apes
Tim Burton’s movie is just irredeemably bland, boring, and dumb. It fails to live up to the Apes name. It might have the best practical effects of the franchise, but it’s not even remotely enough to sustain interest. This movie is the the only Apes movie you’re better off not watching. It feels like an absolute waste of time and is thus the last on this list.
7 – Battle for the Planet of the Apes
This one is just forgettable. Devoid of interesting choices, stripped of a lot of the politics of the series, and generally flat. Not even the Godfather of ape actors can make the main character interesting. It still has some good canon stuff though – the origin of the mutants and almost the origin of the divide between apes and humans. It’s not wall-to-wall awful like Tim Burton’s, and this gets second place.
6 – Beneath the Planet of the Apes
If I was being a tad more subjective in my rankings this would be way higher. It’s a bit of a shambles, but it’s the right kind of weird. The whole thing is just nutty and I love it. I think it’s more of a “true Apes” movie than Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and it especially wins points for it’s spectacular ending. Basically from this point on we’re ranking awesome movies, which makes it harder. Like I said before six of the movies in the series are great, so you should watch from six on. This ones super entertaining, just technically the worst made of the bunch. So sixth place was really the only place for it.
5 – Rise of the Planet of the Apes
It’s a good movie, but it’s lacking too many Planet of the Apes staples to climb any higher up the list. The characters are engaging and the plot lands just right, but the politics are clumsy and the endings too happy. The apes frequently look good though, and Caesar’s arc is completely captivating. It’s decidedly workmanlike in execution however. The lack of interesting risks and Planet of the Apes characteristics has slid it down the list. Perhaps farther down the list than it deserves. But this is my list. Mine I tell you.
4 – Escape from the Planet of the Apes
This movie is utterly strange, yet exceedingly well executed. It’s bummer ending (the inevitable destruction of the human race and baby murder) is one of the series’ best. Apes travel back to then modern day earth and have a right old time. Then they get drugged, all-but-tortured, and eventually killed. The whole movie feels a bit like a piece of escape art – you’re just surprised they pulled it off without a hitch.
3 – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
This movies powerful themes all but overwhelm the flaws. Sure the film dabbles in far too many cliches, the human characters don’t get an arc, and there are some clearly missing gaps. But the themes are so wonderfully realized it doesn’t really matter. In fact it’s all but tied with next place:
2 – Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
Still might be my favourite of the series. Basically this is the original series’ Rise of the Planet of the Apes. We get to see the Apes go from slaves to rebels. It’s completely thrilling. Unfortunately the canon ending is the least Apes-esque of the two, but it’s still tinged with enough irony to make it work.
1 – The Planet of the Apes
The granddaddy of them all is still easily the best made of the lot. The filmmaking on display here is a cut above, the script folds on politics brilliantly, the cast is utterly perfect, and the ending is amazing. This movie is a must watch situation.
So that’s my 100% incontestable Planet of the Apes ranking, please contest it in the comments.
I’m so glad I watched this series, as it has easily become one of my all time favourites. The movies on here I love I will defend with a frothing sincerity, and the whole series will get that defence by extension. The first one may be a deserving pop culture landmark, but that didn’t prepare me for such an overwhelmingly fascinating series. For now though, my journey is over. For now. Maybe we’ll meet again when the next movie comes out. Maybe we’ll meet again if I watch more of the TV show or start the animated show. Maybe we’ll meet again if I get lonely and decide to find some flimsy excuse to write about the series.
Until then though: so long and thanks for reading my obsessive Planet of the Apes reviews.