By now, unless you're totally deaf to advance buzz or have been living on a Luddite commune for the last few weeks, you’ll be aware that Friday’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” will open wide with a great groundswell of critical approval behind it (you can read our own extremely positive review here). Whether that will translate into box office is anyone’s guess, but the omens are in its favor: ‘Dawn’ seems destined to benefit from strong word of mouth, especially around Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance, the trailers have been playing like gangbusters (even if their violence sparked complaints during the World Cup) and most importantly, it’s the sequel to the remarkably successful “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” which itself took nearly half a billion dollars worldwide.
The franchise, which has been so triumphantly rebooted, now consists of eight big-screen outings: the original 1968 Charlton Heston classic and its four sequels, the abortive reboot attempt that was Tim Burton’s 2001 film and now the two new Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves additions to the canon. To celebrate the release of ‘Dawn’ (and it is cause for celebration indeed) we’ve taken a helicopter view of the whole lot and ranked them in order of quality. If you’re planning a pre-’Dawn’ viewing session to get yourself in the mood, or if you leave the theater buzzing for more ape-on-human action, here’s our rundown of every ‘Planet of the Apes’ film, from worst to best:
8. “Planet of the Apes” (Tim Burton, 2001)
Of all the film ideas that do not benefit from being rendered in style-over-content form, perhaps the sci-fi story of an ape civilization that has risen to compete with the primacy of humankind is the most exemplary: what makes any “Planet of the Apes” film great is how thematically weighty it can be and how fertile a ground it provides for social and political allegory, not that it gives someone an excuse to spend loads of money making it look cool. But enter 2001-era Tim Burton who entirely seemed to mistake the surface of the concept for its substance (this was before this very tendency had fully manifested itself as his fatal flaw), and so managed to deliver a totally incoherent and tin-eared version of the story, while still spending $100 million on it. And in fairness to him, a lot of that money is up there on the screen: Rick Baker’s make up and creature effects are pretty outstanding; the apes’ clothing and armor is wonderfully well-designed; and the world is built with an eye for scale and spectacle. But underneath that impressive gloss (which occasionally feels almost distractingly overdesigned, viz Helena Bonham Carter’s Ari with her eyeliner and shaggy but unmistakably coiffed bob) the actors struggle to invest a paper-thin story with any real emotional heft, not helped by Mark Wahlberg delivering one of his most blank, bland and overwhelmed performances at the center. Worst of all, in a franchise kind of famous for spectacular dismounts, Burton’s films ends in a way that simply feels unearned, with a kind of unexplained gotcha! that seems more designed to cliffhanger us into a sequel than to actually round out a plot that has been until then both needlessly overcomplicated and thematically simplistic. Despite the film’s decent showing ($360 million worldwide) that sequel never came to pass, thank God--reportedly Burton himself said he “would rather jump out of a window” than do another ‘Apes,’ and the franchise, which had been dead on the big-screen for nearly 30 years was put on ice for another decade before being rebooted into “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which, while not a 100% home run, certainly seemed to have learned many of the lessons of Burton’s turgid misfire.
7. “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (J. Lee Thomson, 1973)
The fifth and final entry in the original franchise ‘Battle’ is rightly regarded as the least of them, largely due to drastic budget reduction which led to skimping on things like production design and number of extras (it’s by far the emptiest ‘Apes’ film as regards people milling around in the background). It’s hard to get the same feeling of awe and epic scale that the series’ best installments can offer when you’re essentially watching ten guys squabble in a forest, and yet, shoddiness of staging and editing aside (take the risible climactic Caesar vs Aldo tree battle for a prime example of both) you can still see enough here story-wise to justify the fact that it forms the loose basis for this week’s triumphant ‘Dawn.’ Roddy McDowall returns as Caesar, some years (either 12 or 27, depending on who you believe) after the events of ‘Conquest,’ and this time he is the king of Ape City, an enclave of survivors from the war, in which apes and humans co-exist but the humans are distinctly subservient. The belligerent Aldo, the gorilla general of the ape army chafes against Caesar’s pacifism, however, and so while the film also has antagonists in the form of a mutated human army (again, of about ten, who ride to war on a school bus), it’s really more about the factionalism within the ape ranks. One casualty of that is the human characterization—while McDowall is strong again in his signature role, his assistant MacDonald (Austin Stoker) is the only human with any amount of dialogue apart from Severn Darden as the enjoyably batshit irradiated rebel General, and what he has is mostly expository. Still, there are flickers of previous ‘Apes’ movies’ nuances and politics—even the mutant humans get a speech in their defense by Caesar’s wife Lisa (Natalie Trundy), and if the ape vs mutant battle looks about as dramatic as a few kids playing soldiers around a bonfire, it still does call into question the value of pacifism in an interesting way. Interesting, but somewhat confused—it’s possible there is simply too much factionalism going on at this point, too many mini-internal conflicts, not to mention references to God, to work out the film’s overall position or philosophy. Still it does provide, as ever, a vehicle for a very peculiar kind of meta species self-disgust for us humans, as when Aldo the gorilla is found out to have committed ape-on-ape murder and MacDonald wryly observes that it “looks like they’ve joined the human race.” Poorly shot, carelessly thrown together and outside of McDowall and Darden rather listlessly acted, what’s surprising is that there’s still enough story juice here to power 'Battle' along, and almost enough to make the John Huston cameo that bookends the film and delivers its last reveal in the year 2670, oddly touching.
6. "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" (Ted Post, 1970)
The original "Planet of the Apes" is a hard act to follow, and "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" isn't really up to the challenge. The movie begins right after the big reveal that capped off the first movie, with Taylor (Charlton Heston, who supposedly donated his sizable check for what amounts to a "guest appearance" to a charity of his choosing) venturing further into the Forbidden Zone. After the earth starts to crack and flames shoot out of the ground, Taylor disappears, leaving the mute (but incredibly hot) Nova (Linda Harrison) to find help. It turns out she doesn't have to look far, because Brent (James Franciscus), an astronaut who has traveled into the same portal looking for Taylor and his crewmates, shows up. This is problem #1 with "Beneath the Planet of the Apes:" James Franciscus is fucking awful. He looks sort of like Heston, something producer Richard Zanuck later said was a deliberate attempt to confuse the audience, but none of his gravitas or gruff charm. (His beard is pretty good though.) The movie is rather plodding, with Brent going through the same motions that Taylor did, although there are some delightful flourishes: James Gregory as warmongering gorilla commander General Ursus (who utters the immortal "The only good human is a dead human!" line); a long, unbroken tracking shot of the gorilla training camp; and more upfront political commentary, like when the apes, bound for battle, encounter a group of peace-loving chimpanzees with signs that read "Unity in Peace." (The movie's lively last 30 minutes, when Brent encounters an underground society of mutants that worships an atomic bomb, and runs into Taylor, is pretty trippy too, if completely nonsensical.) Still, in addition to Franciscus' wooden performance, there are a number of things that make "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" one of the least engaging entries in the franchise: the large crowd scenes, where extras are clearly wearing Halloween-style plastic masks, the wonky pacing, the lack of Roddy McDowall (he was directing a project in England at the time) and the bleak ending which tries to top the shock of the first film (and doesn't) and seems to have been designed almost exclusively so Heston wouldn't have to show up for another sequel.