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The original Planet of the Apes movies: a look back

The Apes films
20th Century Fox

With the new film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes now in theaters, it is a good time to look back at the original Planet of the Apes movie series which ran from 1968 to 1973.

Planet of the Apes (1968): The only true classic in the series, Planet of the Apes is a witty and thought-provoking film that established Charlton Heston as a science fiction movie icon and featured one of the most memorable twist endings in movie history. Even in the face of the amazing makeup in Tim Burton’s otherwise dreary reimagining of the story and the incredible CGI effects of the most recent Apes films, the prosthetics used to turn such stars as Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans into simians are still impressive. The original Planet of the Apes movie is also the most quotable of any apes film. “Get your stinking paws off me, you damned, dirty ape!” and “I never met an ape I didn’t like” are just two of the many well-remembered lines in this film.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970): With Planet of the Apes such a huge hit, it was inevitable that there would be a sequel. Beneath the Planet of the Apes had astronaut Brent, played by James Franciscus, attempting to find George Taylor (Charlton Heston) and instead discovering, as Taylor did before him, a planet where apes rule and humans are primitive dumb mutes. He also discovers an underground race of mutated humans who worship a doomsday bomb. Not nearly as good a film as its predecessor, Beneath the Planet of the Apes is nevertheless good, goofy fun, a movie filled with over-the-top performances and exciting set-pieces.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971): The only film in the original series that comes close to the intelligence and quality of the original film, Escape from the Planet of the Ape has the chimpanzee couple Zira and Cornelius (Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall) from the first two films arriving on Earth and becoming instant celebrities. When one scientist realizes that their appearance on Earth could inevitably lead to the destruction of mankind, things take a nasty turn for the loving chimp couple and their newborn baby. Before Escape from the Planet of the Apes reaches its exciting chase-filled ending, it spends much time gently mocking the fashions and trends of the late sixties and early seventies. The film remains highly enjoyable with top-notch performances by Hunter and McDowall.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972): Although it features Roddy McDowall’s best performance of the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is a movie where interesting ideas and potentially exciting sequences are hampered by budget constraints and lackluster backgrounds and sets. The film wants to be an apocalyptic nightmare, but the battle between the apes and the humans seems to take place on one four-block radius of Los Angeles. The film’s original dark ending did not play well in previews, and was softened to make the apes more sympathetic and the fate of humanity not quite as bleak. A film more impressive for its ideas rather than its execution, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes would have still been a much better conclusion to the series than the actual final film.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973): When the performance of songwriter Paul Williams as an ape is the best thing about a movie, you know you have a dog of a film on your hands. This is not an insult directed at Williams; he truly is terrific as philosopher ape Virgil, right-hand man (or ape) to Roddy McDowall’s Caesar. But Battle for the Planet of the Apes was expected to wrap up the series in a circular way, bringing us back to the original film, and instead, it is merely a cheap, tedious and half-hearted remake of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The television series that followed, although short-lived, was much more entertaining than this half-baked disappointment.

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