All eight Planet of the Apes films ranked from worst to best
The Planet of the Apes franchise holds as fervent and loyal a fanbase as any of the great modern Science Fiction franchises. Similarly, its duration and output have been as impressive of a feat, with the franchise racking up eight films to date (the same amount as Star Wars, as it currently stands). This year’s War for the Planet of the Apes – although not sequential to the early films and instead doing its own thing – will mark the ninth Planet of the Apes film, to date.
Ahead of that third instalment in the modern trilogy, which looks set to be an impressive film, I took a look back at the entire cinematic franchise to date (TV shows excluded), re-watching every film in chronological order of release in order to grade each of them on quality, from worst to best (number one being the best).
Spoilers are discussed below.
8] Planet of the Apes (2001)
I would argue that viewed as a teenager upon its release – as I viewed it – this was a great film. Tim Roth was brilliantly and utterly terrifying as Thade. Estella Warren’s beauty rivalled that of Linda Harrison in the original. The final reveal was both baffling and bleak. Viewed now as an adult, however, after watching all of the previous Apes films, its flaws show much clearer.
Wahlberg is not great choice as a hero and certainly doesn’t rival Heston or Franciscus. The plot leaves a lot lacking and holds many silly moments (and ludicrous dialogue). Some part of me feels that this film doesn’t deserve the vast amount of criticism that’s heaped upon it. It did, after all, try to do something new with the core concept, rather than just regurgitate the original. It also retained practical effects for the Apes themselves, which I still think is the right method to adopt, but other things like common sense and the laws of physics are thoroughly discarded. The bottom line is that it definitely didn’t do justice to what came before it, both in terms of intellectual acuity and honouring the style of the original films, and for those reasons it stands as the worst Apes film.
7] Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
Suffering the lowest budget ($1.2 million) of all eight of the Planet of the Apes films, this fifth instalment held enough interesting content to mark it as by no means a failure, but while all of the other Apes films have something special and unique about them, this instalment doesn’t hold a great deal of memorable content. What it does do is provide an interesting ape vs. ape scenario (which Dawn of the Planet of the Apes would later go on to utilise with Caesar and Koba), in the form of Caesar versus Aldo.
In the film, Aldo deliberately takes action to kill Caesar’s son, which sets off the feud and pushes Caesar’s boundaries when it comes to the ape law that ape should not kill ape. The narrative is bookended by an older ape who is telling young ape and young children alike the story of Caesar, which shows that there is a positive future ahead (at least for a period of time), where apes and humans live in harmony. Given that this was intended to be the final chapter of the apes franchise, this could be viewed as the writers’ attempt to provide a happy ending.
6] Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
By far the strangest film of the franchise, this sequel was plagued from the outset by the fact that Charlton did not wish to be in the film. He was persuaded to have a small part as long as it resulted in him being killed off and he chose to donate all of his earnings for the film to charity. This led to James Franciscus taking his place as the new character named Brent. While the idea of another astronaut landing (in pursuit of Taylor) is a unlikely, Franciscus’ addition here is a welcome one. The wonderful Linda Harrison also returns as Nova, which adds value to the film and allows for a more beautiful duo than we had the first time around.
The first half of the film steps firmly within the footsteps of the original, stylistically speaking, then the second half of the film begins to take a very strange turn. We meet a race of bizarre telepathic humans living under the Earth who have been physically distorted by the fallout following civilisation’s demise. This group worship an atomic bomb, which the Fallout games pay homage to in their franchise of games. The ending veers into a strangeness that I can only describe as being similar to the finale of the superb television show The Prisoner. Commendably, the writers are bold enough to kill of all of the heroes, including Nova and Brent, before ending with a brutally bleak and brilliant shot of Taylor deliberately pressing the button to detonate the atomic bomb, which somehow destroys the entire Earth. I love the film for its bold bleakness but it’s a little too strange for its own good at times.
5] Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
This was a strong comeback, in the sense that it outstripped Tim Burton’s effort and, importantly, it got Caesar right. Although it is essentially a revamping of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, it brought a few new things to the franchise too. For example, showing the transition from everyday chimps to intelligent apes, altering the death of humanity from mutually assured nuclear destruction to a virus that most humans can’t survive (which isn’t necessarily a good change, as the nuclear holocaust was more interesting, in my view) and most obviously, introducing modern CGI for the apes.
Personally, I’m still an advocate of practical effects over CGI. While the apes here do look impressive and Caesar is extremely emotive, right down to even the subtlest of glances, there’s far more benefit to seeing a real actor (I’m not counting Andy Serkis, as you don’t see Andy himself on screen) perform the role. This is one thing that makes the old films stand out above this new series.
While a pretty strong film, it doesn’t hold up terribly well when viewed in the grand scope of all of the apes films, or even when viewed alongside its sequel. All that truly happens is Caesar loses his faith in humanity, turns from an innocent into a crafty leader, breaks some of his own kind out of a imprisonment and runs away to the Redwoods. It’s far from the best of both the modern series and the entire apes franchise as a whole, but it’s a strong effort.
4] Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
This film bettered it predecessor, escalating the plot and showing that the series does have potential to grow into a brutal story about the dregs of mankind versus the ever-more numerous apes. This film showed that Caesar and most of his kind are rational, allowing humans the option to live and let live. It also makes the great point, however, that every species has its criminals. Here it is Koba, for the apes, who frames the humans in order to bring about war, and Carver, for the humans, who isn’t as bad as Koba, but who is very fearful of the apes and who is unwilling to trust them.
The film also has merit in its decision (which was perhaps budget-based) to choose non-A list stars. Everyone is familiar with Keri Russell and Gary Oldman, but faces like Jason Clarke (who I will forever love for the short-lived The Chicago Code) are much less A-list and the film is better for it. Most big budget franchise films like this would opt for A-list stars; if you look at its predecessor, that film had James Franco and Frieda Pinto in the central roles, who were both very big at the time. In this film actors like Clarke thrive, in the grit and the dirt, as humans on the edge of survival.
While better than its predecessor, it isn’t as impressive as it perhaps could have been and for me, it still falls short of the greatness of some of the old films. This new series has enough smart ammunition to make something great, but it keeps falling marginally short of that high target. I’m hoping that changes with this summer’s War for the Planet of the Apes, which, like the above film, is also directed by Matt Reeves.
3] Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
Some franchises have no room for comedy, but this film proved that the Apes franchise is perfectly receptive of intelligent humour. The premise of the film is a little silly – three apes escaping just before the Earth exploded and coming back to present day Earth – but the execution is brilliant. The first half is very whimsical, utilising adept comedy at the expense of the humans, as the apes pretend to be of basic intelligence, in order to suss the humans out.
There is undoubtedly some messiness in this film. The costume used for the gorilla in the adjoining cell to our apes is ludicrously poor and the very final shot of the film with Milo is placed on a laughably obvious loop, so that the monkey’s verbal phrasing sounds humanised. Among the quality of the rest of the film though, these prove to be minor charms rather than annoying flaws.
The second half of the film turns a little more serious. Superb discourse occurs, which is reminiscent of the best intellectual discussions within the first Apes film. We get to see how our society might react to something like talking, intelligent apes, and importantly, the mythology of the franchise is extended; it is explained that there was a plague on dogs and cats, which led to apes becoming pets, then servers. There is also mention of Aldo (the ape who is against Caesar in Battle for the Planet of the Apes) and Cornelius and Zira have a child together. They name this child Milo, but he eventually would grow up to become Caesar; the very staple and core of the franchise.
2] Planet of the Apes (1968)
Most fans might place this film first on this list and I can see why, for the most part. It has a perfectly Science Fiction opening scenes, it has the lovely Nova, it’s full of intelligent discourse (including wonderful digs at the idiocy of religion) and it has that all-powerful twist ending. It also has Charlton Heston, who turns in a performance both eternal, within cinema, and also one that’s ludicrously over-exaggerated at times.
It’s classic, it began the whole franchise and the entire mythology and for those things it’s a very good film, but what it doesn’t have is the very thing that makes the apes franchise so special; Caesar. I would argue that the very best thing about the entire franchise is Caesar and watching him gather intelligent and followers, as well as rationality and mercy. This film has none of the Caesar mythology, instead relying on the viewer’s awe at getting to see a planet governed by apes, and on Taylor trying to escape from the plant. It’s strong, but it isn’t the pinnacle of this franchise, in my view.
1] Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
There’s a reason that the modern series has sometimes been called a “remake of Conquest” and why the modern series wouldn’t exist without this film. That’s because this fourth instalment struck upon something very special indeed. This was Caesar and this is where he truly began (prior to this, he was just a baby named Milo), including all of his emotional and intellectual complexity.
While the modern franchise does handle Caesar very well, it’s nothing on how well this film manages the intricacies of this leader among apes. It also helps that a live actor plays the role, rather than the viewer seeing nothing but CGI. There’s racial morals to the film too, with African slavery being nodded to more than once.
This is the film where Caesar chooses his own name. It’s the film where Ricardo Montalban serves as a brilliant father-figure (Armando) for the ape (much better than James Franco’s character) and where we see Caesar cry for the first time, after he loses that father-figure. One great line uttered, which Dawn of the Planet of the Apes riffed upon with Koba and Carver, is when Caesar comments upon humans like so:
“A handful are kind, perhaps, but most of them won’t learn until we force them to.”
This is Caesar at his rawest and most vengeful, suffused with hurt from the death of Armando and from torture at the hands of the humans. It’s a very bloody film, even going as far as to have scenes where apes are stabbing piles of bloody human corpses. For me, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is this excellent franchise at its very best.
What are your thoughts on this list? Where do you think War for the Planet of the Apes will place on this list, once released? I encourage you to share your thoughts and your own list in the comments section below.
Image credits: 20th Century Fox