Ranking the ‘Planet of the Apes’ Series

With the release of “War for the Planet of the Apes” upon us, I decided to find out how these films stack up against one another.

In high school, I regularly wore shirts from Threadless. After seeing their shirts detailed on the Travel Channel — of all places — I was hooked. Being from Chicago, where their offices were located, I felt I should support local businesses. After browsing their website, I immediately felt I should own them all. Colorful, impeccably designed and hilarious, a couple caught my eye right away. One was a black shirt with white and red writing. Cleverly crafted to form a neat box were the endings to famous movies. Entitled “Spoilt”, the shirt is one of the first I bought from Threadless.

The shirt was a hit. Fellow classmates and others stopped and read the shirt, seeing if they could guess the film references. Some are obvious: “Luke’s father” with a Darth Vader helmet. Some are harder to figure out: “Dil is actually a man”. There was one, however, that stumped many curious guessers. At the top of the shirt, with a decrepit outline of the Statue of Liberty, sits the spoil: “It was Earth all along”. Knowing movie history, the answer was obvious. To others, the spoil was unknown.

The ironic part was, at the time, I had not seen the film. A year or so later, AMC ran a marathon of the series, and I thought I should give the films a whirl. Besides the ending, I knew nothing about Planet of the Apes or its sequels. Ultimately, when the series was aired on TV, I grinned at the potential pleasure of watching an interesting idea for a series: talking apes interacting with humans.

Between 1968 and 1973, five films came out as a part of the Planet of the Apes series. The original is based on a 1963 French novel; the rest of the series follows the first film. In 2001, Tim Burton re-made the film and, since 2011, a reboot series has made its way to the big screen. This July, the third film in the reboot series is released and already has created buzz as a must see summer blockbuster.

To celebrate, and as a fan of the series, I wanted to share my opinions on the Planet of the Apes series and provide a definitive (not really, but I’d like to think so) rankings. Thoughts? Disagreements? Let me know in the comments below.

8. Planet of the Apes (2001)

Almost unwatchable. Almost. Everything that worked and was entertaining in the original series went out the window. Through the front door came some Tim Burton wackiness that did not make a whole lot of sense — nor was enjoyable to watch. The world was a bit more expansive, sure, but the characters were bland portrayals of characters from the original series.

It’s a film that improved its looks, but everything else faltered because of its looks. The ending, which met heavy criticism, contributed to the sour taste of this film. Having an ambiguous endings lessens the power of the film and its place in the pantheon of the series.

7. Battle for Planet of the Apes (1973)

The final movie in the original series, Battle is hugely disappointing. Teased as a film that would depict incredible action, the film is horrible paced and an incredible let down. Done on the cheap, the film is no fun at all. It is as if biting into a sandwich thought to be delicious, yet the sandwich is tasteless and lacking flavor. There is little substance to the film; everything is cut and dry.

The films that came previous to Battle evoked incredibly emotion and had a strong message about society and the culture of the day. I am sure there is a message to be found in Battle for Planet of the Apes, but everything — from the character exposition to the actual battle — happened quickly and ineffectively; the message was lost on me. Pass.

6. Escape From Planet of the Apes (1971)

The funky one. Escape From Planet of the Apes, the third one in the original series, details “the birth” of the what is to come: Caesar and the start of the “ape uprising”. How the story sets this part of the series, however, feels like a cheat.

Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter) leave the destruction that came before by piloting the spacecraft from the first film through a time warp and ending up back on Earth in the 1970s. Hmm. A bit out there for me, but if you give Escape that gimmie, the film is quite interesting. Watching McDowell and Hunter in roles that are familiar (they are major players in the first two films) and how they interact in a “contemporary” society is entertaining. There is humor that was almost non-existent in the first two films.

The film’s messages and themes provoke interesting conversation, while being a tad on the nose. Issues like gender roles and animal testing are well established talking points in the film, making the film contain some needed substance. It is a bit kooky, but far more enjoyable then the other two.

5. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Originally, I liked this film. The sequel to the original film, it brought back all the major characters: Taylor (Charlton Heston), Zira, Cornelius, Nova and Dr. Zaius. Sadly, upon a re-watch, the film does not hold up well at all.

First, the crop of new characters are unappealing. Brent (James Franciscus) was sent on a mission to find Taylor, but he ends up crashing his spacecraft just like Taylor. On top of that: Brent is a complete replica of Taylor: similar physical features and attitude. Viewing the film, it feels as if this film is going to repeat what the first one just accomplished. It does not, but we get a film filled with preachy dialogue and nameless other characters.

Seeing a destroyed New York is cool and learning how society survives makes for an interesting take of Earth in the distant future. Also, watching Heston and the others makes for a great time.

4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

The first of the new reboot series, Rise ushers in a new expansiveness to this story. More characters are involved, and there is more in-depth explanation to the motives that drive the story. We lose the mystery from the original series, but we gain a lot more. By not simply re-making the original series, Rise can go on its own in creating a universe — which it does successfully.

The film is action packed and provides a great set up for this world. Its only downfall is James Franco. I have never been a Franco fan, and the performance feels like every other Franco performance: restrained and cold. The other characters — Freida Pinto, John Lithgow and Tom Felton — are solid. The star is Andy Serkis as the chimp Caesar. The effects that transformed Serkis into Caesar are glorious to watch. Unlike Burton’s remake, Rise of the Planet of the Apes breathes a new life into the series.

3. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

The darkest film of the series, Conquest is the fourth film of the original series. The message of this film — slavery — is explicit and bold. At some parts, the metaphor is cringe-worthy, which is not altogether bad. The film does not shy away from the nastiness of the human race.

The film is slow to begin, but the uprising that comes is glorious. After watching defenseless apes, basically, enslaved by the human race, the payback they garner on their masters makes for a riveting second half. The apes do not shy away from inflicting as much damage as they can on the world they all despise. The ending riots mirror an action on what was going on between the African American and white communities. There are moments where it feels more real world than fiction. Conquest is one of the most memorable films of the series, which is why it sits at three.

2. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2013)

Visually, the film echoes the 2011 film. The second in the reboot series, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is much grander in scale. The world feels bigger and the characters are driven more in-depth with the plot. A major plus is the fact Gary Oldman replaces Franco as the lead. Serkis returns and equals his performance in Rise. Keri Russell, Judy Greer and Jason Clarke round out a solid cast.

Dawn brings the action. Film guidelines dictate that sequels are supposed to be bigger in scale (it is not really a guideline), and Dawn delivers. Like Conquest, watching a fight for independence is exciting and rewarding. The film is much more subtle about the animal rights and race relation metaphors brought up in earlier films. Dawn is not just an action film; it is an in-depth look at society and how we treat others — while being a summer blockbuster. It fills its two hours with action, worthy dialogue and solid performances — something some of the earlier flicks could not do in 90 minutes.

1. Planet of the Apes (1968)

I like to be fair and honest — being trendy is not my game. I could have put another film number one and garnered attention for the pick. But, I can’t. The original Planet of the Apes is, by far, the superior film of the series, and the one I re-visit most often.

The original has it all: the memorable characters; the quotable lines; the shocking ending. It meshes the message of race relations and religion vs science perfectly with action and character development. The interaction between Heston and the apes is something entertaining to watch: the perfect game of we know much more than the characters. I enjoy the simplistic nature of the film. There is not a ton of long-winded dialogue; the score is simple and effective. Watching a society that mirrors ours from the past is an interesting dynamic to watch.

The film’s message of religion vs. science gets a little heavy-handed at times, but never dull. The film’s ending — despite being well known — still packs a wild punch of craziness. For me, this is my favorite Charlton Heston performance (Sorry, Moses) and it solely is for the ending reaction. Iconic.

(Plus, Planet of the Apes gave us the greatest Broadway musical of all time, too).

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