'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' hits theaters Friday, July 11, and it's one of the most anticipated blockbusters this summer. Last week I released my glowing review of the film (you can read it here) and it appears I'm not alone in my positive reaction, as it's currently holding at a stellar 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.
'Dawn' is the eighth film in the 20th Century Fox 'Planet of the Apes' series, one of the longest running sci-fi franchises. And it's lasted so long because of it's unique perspective. At it's best it's served as both spectacle and commentary, serving as societal mirror on issues of race, class, animal rights, nuclear armament, and ecological collapse.
But not all ape films are created equal. Here we rank the series from best to worst, from what is essential viewing, and others that are lower on the evolutionary scale.
SPOILER ALERT: I'll be discussing major plot points in each film.
1. 'Planet of the Apes' (1968)
The first 'Apes' film remains the pinnacle of the series. Charlton Heston chews the scenery as the astronaut George Taylor, who crash lands on a planet where English speaking apes rule through military and science and humans are animalistic slaves.
Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter are the iconic chimpanzee scientists duo Cornelius and Zira, and Maurice Evans is the cranky, science-doubting Dr. Zaius.
The movie is perhaps best remembered for it's 'Twilight Zone'-esque twist ending (fitting given 'Zone' creator Rod Serling wrote the screenplay), where Taylor sees the Statue of Liberty submerged on a beach and realizes he's back on Earth, one where man was obliterated through nuclear war, thereby sealing their future fates as the subservient species.
2. 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' (2014)
'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' feels not just like a game changer for the series, but for science fiction filmmaking as well. Click here for my full advance review, but in a nutshell; 'Dawn' is the perfect mix of brain and brawn, a stellar follow-up to 2011's 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' where ape leader Caesar struggles to avoid war between his tribe and the human survivors of the Simian flu epidemic. It features an incredibly emotional motion capture performance by Andy Serkis that is truly Oscar worthy.
3. 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' (2011)
The 'Planet of the Apes' series was brought back to life in this stunning 2011 prequel/reboot from director Rupert Wyatt. The clever script from husband-wife writing team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver shows the beginning of human decline. An alzheimer drug is tested on apes resulting in the chimpanzee named Caesar gaining human intelligence, and becomes a simian savior to other apes used for laboratory experiments. There's also a Serling style twist ending; the drug creates a fatal viral reaction in humans, thus explaining the eventual species domination of ape over man.
'Rise' was emotionally touching as well as action packed, becoming a hit with critics and audiences alike, and one of the series highlights.
4. 'Escape from the Planet of the Apes' (1971)
Zira and Cornelius travel back in time from 3955 to 1971 in 'Escape from the Planet of the Apes'.
At first, mankind is shocked by the appearance of talking apes, but that quickly turns the duo into celebrities. But a scientific advisor to the U.S. President uncovers the truth about the future events where apes rule mankind. In a tragic standoff Zira and Cornelius perish, but their infant son is rescued by a kindly circus owner (unbeknownst to the U.S. authorities). Their son's name? Caesar.
5. 'Conquest of the Planet of the Apes' ( 1972)
'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' was loosely based off this 1972 entry, which remains the darkest of the original five ape films. Caesar has matured (played by Roddy McDowall, who formerly played Cornelius) and lives in a society where chimps are kept as pets and as well as used for slave labor.
Subject to torture and enraged at the inhumane treatment of apes by the police state, Caesar organizes an apes revolt, thus marking a power shift between the species.
'Conquest' was the first film to be rated PG due to it's violent nature, which was a clear allegory of the tumultuous Civil Rights area. The original theatrical cut ends with a reluctantly benevolent Caesar trying to avert human bloodshed. The unrated cut is superior and has a far darker, yet more satisfying ending.
6. 'Battle for the Planet of the Apes' (1973)
'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' borrows several elements from 'Battle', but it is an improvement upon the original in every facet.
'Battle' is the final in the first series of films, and takes place 12 years after 'Conquest.' Caesar has formed a fragile alliance with a group of humans, but that is threatened when an outsider group declares war upon them, and when Caesar's rule is threatened by Kolp (Claude Akin) a Gorilla who wishes to take control and to exterminate humans.
Like the earlier films, it has both heartache and triumph, but a paltry budget makes it look like a TV movie (indeed there would be a 'Apes' series shortly thereafter), and the combat scenes are poorly staged, and it's bookended by a corny ending (the extended cut is a more satisfying film however.)
7. 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes' (1970)
The first sequel in the POTA series misses the mark across the board. When the apes play second fiddle in their own film, it's a huge misfire, but such is the case when the film becomes derailed by a group of mutants who worship the atomic bomb.
The story isn't helped by the fact that Charlton Heston balked at returning, only playing a cameo. In his place, came James Franciscus playing an astronaut searching for Taylor. He's such a Heston lookalike that it's distracting, and the storyline is far too drab and unsatisfying.
The film ends with Taylor setting off a nuclear bomb and wiping out the Earth. It's one of the bleakest endings to a Hollywood film, but not even nuclear Armageddon could wipe out the series, and it returned a year later with 'Escape from the Planet of the Apes.'
8. 'Planet of the Apes' (2001)
The ape suits by Rick Baker looked fantastic, and Danny Elfman made a compelling score, That's really the only nice things one can mention about Tim Burton's anemic remake, with a plot that is mostly forgettable, except for the ridiculous finale, which remains far too memorable. While it made a decent dent at the box office, it left a bad taste in the mouth of critics and POTA fans, and nuked the series for eleven years.
So that concludes our ranking of the 'Planet of the Apes' film series. So be sure to check out 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' this weekend and chime in with your own ranking of the series in the comments section.