5. "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" (J. Lee Thompson, 1972)
The "Planet of the Apes" films had always been political, but with "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes," things got angry. And it was awesome. Continuing the tradition of the sequels having bigger canvases but smaller budgets, "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" takes place in the nebulously phrased "North America – 1991" and was filmed in the newly opened, starkly modern Century City, an urban tangle built on land formerly owned by 20th Century Fox. In the years since "Escape from the Planet of the Apes," a virus has killed off most of the domesticated pets on earth, leaving apes to supposedly fill that role (and so much more). These apes are basically slaves, and so it's up to Armando (Ricardo Montalban, back again, this time sporting some wispy facial hair) to protect the super smart child of Cornelius and Zira, Caesar (Roddy McDowall, this time playing his own son, something he described later as "a unique acting challenge"). Of course, Caesar is found out and put through the process the rest of the apes face, a kind of training program/internment camp, which serves to militarize him, until he eventually leads a violent ape revolt against the human oppressors. McDowall is, once again, flawless, and one of the most touching moments in the entire franchise is when he discovers that the human government has murdered Armando. As tears roll down McDowall's make-up-coated cheeks, there's no doubt that this character is 100% real. Shortly before "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" was released, the studio got skittish about the movie's level of violence and its incendiary political subtext (which referenced everything from America's history with slavery to more contemporary issues like the Watts riots), and softened the ending, which had Caesar leading an all-out execution of the human prisoners ("Ape management is in the hands of the apes"). That version has been beautifully restored for the Blu-ray release and is the essential incarnation of "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes," which has its share of cheap drive-in moments but is also surprisingly cerebral and dark. It also set the stage to a truly explosive finale to the series, which unfortunately ended up not coming to pass (see 'Battle' above).
4. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (Rupert Wyatt, 2011)
With ‘Dawn’ by all accounts eclipsing the first entry in the rebooted franchise, it would be easy to undervalue “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” by comparison, but that would do an injustice to just what a Herculean task Rupert Wyatt’s film achieved. Bursting out of the gates from the standing start of a moribund franchise whose last attempt at rejuvenation (Burton’s 2001 film) had become more or less a punchline, where it was remembered at all, ‘Rise’ had a seemingly insurmountable mountain to climb to claw back any relevance to the modern filmgoer. But two major factors allowed it to do just that: an industry in which the fields of motion-capture technology and computer generated imagery had made exponential strides forward in achieving photorealist creature effects, and a cracking script that makes the characters of the apes, particularly Caesar, as unforgettably performed by mo-cap superstar Andy Serkis, among the most complex and rounded of recent blockbuster protagonists. Again, perhaps the human characterization suffers a little by comparison—James Franco is not on quite the sleepy-eyed autopilot he is elsewhere but he’s not an especially interesting human foil, and we instantly forgot Freida Pinto was even in this—but perhaps that’s all the better for us to become invested in the apes, not just Caesar but the Maurice the orangutan who knows sign language, Buck the gorilla and the bitter bonobo Koba. For the majority of its run time, the film is a complex, absorbing piece of work, as we watch the watchful Caesar progress from observation to comprehension to the planning and organizing that indicate vastly superior intelligence, all through the minutest of performance details. Indeed the almost-silent-movie-style heist sequence in which Caesar leaves his "prison," to steal the intelligence-enhancing gas is as fine an example of pure cinema as the tentpole has yielded recently, all culminating in that first, shocking spoken word--“No.” In fact, ‘Rise’ could even have outflanked 1971's 'Escape' and even maybe the 1968 original on this list were it not for its final battle scenes which become suddenly a bit daft by comparison: as action scenes they’re well staged and exciting, but it’s hard to maintain the same level of intellectual engagement when you’re watching a gorilla make a twenty foot jump off the Golden Gate bridge and into a helicopter. Still, ‘Rise’ largely delivered the last thing any of us were really expecting—an intelligent, thrilling ‘Apes’ movie that must surely go down as one of the most successful and welcome franchise reboots ever.
3. "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" (Don Taylor, 1971)
Fox wanted another sequel, and that's what they got, with this inventive, wholly underrated time travel romp. Before the bomb went off at the end of "Beneath the Planet of the Apes," it seems that a trio of chimpanzee scientists – Cornelius (Roddy McDowall, back thank god), Zira (Kim Hunter) and Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo) jumped in Taylor's derelict spacecraft and traveled through the same wormhole that brought him to the planet of the apes, only this time they were the ones landing on a human-filled earth circa 1971. It's an ingenious set-up that works well, complete with a dynamite pre-opening credits sequence where the spacecraft returns to earth, greeted by adoring members of the military who assume it's Taylor and his crew (or, we suppose, that wet blanket Brent) but instead are greeted by a trio of human-sized chimpanzees—the sequence sets the tone for the movie, with its mix of fish-out-of-water commentary and uneasy tension. The first half is the lighter half, with talking apes Zira and Cornelius being given human clothes and treated like celebrities ("The biggest story since the moon landing" is one reporter's grave opinion). This section of the movie is fun and funny (we love it when, while making an introduction to a tribunal, a priest gets worked up over the fact that Zira and Cornelius are married) but leads to a darker, more morally complicated second half, when Zira announces that she is pregnant and the government, aware that the visitors have come from an ape-dominated future-world, do all they can to terminate the pregnancy. The real star of "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" isn't the ape make-up, which, with so few ape characters, returns to the sophisticated glory days of the original, but McDowall, who is able to show surprising range as Cornelius, first displaying his fine comedic chops (when the same tribunal asks Cornelius if he can also speak, he says, "Only when she lets me") and his penchant for drama, especially towards the tragedy-streaked conclusion. Feminism briefly becomes one of the series' political concerns, as Zira speaks in front of a women's group and the notion of terminating the pregnancy coming across as a thinly veiled look at women's reproductive rights in the early '70s. And while the movie's ending is just as grim as the previous two, there are, at least, glimmers of hope, with Zira and Cornelius' baby taken in by a kindly circus owner played, with typical gusto, by Ricardo Montalban ("Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!") A special shout out also should be reserved for Jerry Goldsmith's groovy score, which nearly eclipses the groundbreaking work he did on the original film (he wisely sat out the sequel). "Escape from Planet of the Apes" is, in fact, a superior film in many ways to the first, but is lacking that film's freshness and originality. Still: an undeniable high watermark for the franchise.