Truly one of the strangest film franchises, well, ever, The Planet of the Apes saga has birthed one original film, four sequels, one remake, one reboot, and one television show, and featured a future in which apes rule the Earth, then Charlton Heston nukes the Earth to a cinder, then some time traveling apes visit the 1970s, Ricardo Montalban shows up as a circus owner, a disease wipes out all of Earth’s cats and dogs, America becomes a fascist state, a telepathic cult worships the atom bomb, and James Franco is a brain surgeon. Like I said, this is some wild stuff.
And with the most recent entry, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, still grabbing headlines and moviegoers dollars, we thought we’d lay down our five favorite entries into the franchise. Warning—spoilers ahoy.
1) Planet of the Apes (1968) 5/5
As is the case with most things, the first is the best. The original Apes film had a lot going for it—an oddball premise (astronauts, led by Charlton Heston, pass through a spacial anomaly, end up on an Earth-like planet in which sentient apes run the show and humans are their slaves), some pretty strong make-up work (that still holds up), an awesome score by Jerry Goldsmith, and, of course, the badassery that is Charlton Heston. Toss in the second most shocking scene in the entire franchise (the film’s sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, has the most “Holy s***” moment in the series), in which Heston discovers the “Forbidden Zone” that is guarded and banned by the ape civilization—standing on a shoreline, he sees the charred top of the Statue of Liberty jutting from the sand, and realizes that the Planet of the Apes is Earth, in the future, after humans have all but annihilated themselves with nuclear warfare and apes have evolved into supremacy.
2) Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) 3/5
OK, to be honest there are better Apes films than the first sequel. The first half is essentially a rehash of the first film, in which another team of astronauts are sent to find Heston and Co., and the they, too, get sucked into the future and crash on the future ape Earth, just like in the original. Then, things get really weird—the lead astronaut, Brent, discovers what is left of the New York underground subway in the Forbidden Zone, and inside it, a surviving group of post nuclear war telepathic humans that worship an atom bomb (which is devilishly creepy). But the truly shocking moment—and one which defines the remainder of the franchise’s mythos—comes when the apes kill the slave woman that Heston loves, and, as an act of nihilistic defiance, revenge, and anger, after being told by an ape that all humans can do is destroy, Heston activates the worshipped atom bomb and literally destroys all life, human and ape, on the Planet of the Apes, including his own.
3) Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) 3/5
Taking place outside of the original franchise’s continuity to create one of its own, Rise of the Planet of the Apes finds one of the most shocking twists in the entire series—James Franco playing a neuroscientist bent on curing Alzheimer’s disease. Oh, I kid, I kid. So Franco is working to cure Alzheimer’s, and a genetically engineered retrovirus that he has developed might be the key, and so, of course, it is tested on lab apes. The apes, again, of course, immediately develop a human level of intelligence. Threatened by this, Franco’s bosses order the deaths of the super-apes, with the exception of the newborn Caesar, who Franco rescues. And then, of course of course of course, more scientists begin tinkering with the retrovirus, a legion of apes are made super smart and strong, and the virus turns out to be fatal to humans, and is accidentally unleashed. So, dropping the nuclear annihilation—at least for now—plot, Rise sets the stage for a rebooted franchise, in which humanity falls to a pandemic as the new breed of intelligent apes rise above.
4) Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) 3/5
And this is where things just get… well, even weirder. Turns out three apes—Cornelius, Zira, and Dr. Milo—managed to conveniently escape from the ape planet right before Heston detonated the nuke, and the shockwaves of the planet’s destruction knocked them back in time to—yep, you guessed—Earth in the 1970s. Of course, 20th Century humans freak out at the news that we’re gonna nuke ourselves into ape-slavery in the future, and then that Heston is going to wipe out what’s left. So Cornelius and Zira go on the run, hide in a circus, and have a baby named Caesar (yeah, like in Rise). Then that pesky U.S.military shows up, kills Corny and Zira, leaving the hidden Caesar in the care of circus owner Ricardo Montalban (Ricardo Montalban? Seriously, how much weirder can this franchise get?).
5) Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) 2/5
Jesus, the strangeness of this series just never ends. A strange virus decimates all the dogs and cats of Earth (really), so that monkeys are now adopted as man’s best friend, in an America which has become a fascist state. Caesar’s all grown up and working as a horseback rider in Ricardo Montalban’s circus, until Montalban is killed by authorities who discover Caesar’s presence. Long story short, Caesar goes ape (forgive me), Caesar trains other apes in combat, and the renegade simians declare the birth of the Planet of Apes, with the back half of the film essentially giving Rise of the Apes its entire structure (as well as connecting to the beginning of the first film). Utter, gleefully insane ’70s B-movie madness.
What is your favorite Planet of the Apes film?