Before George Lucas introduced the world to Star Wars, there was the Planet of the Apes franchise An iconic twist, ground-breaking special effects, and deeper philosophical questions all made Planet of the Apes a highly successful series. In the 1970s and 1980s, all five movies regularly turned up on television marathons. Based on Pierre Boulle’s novel, Hollywood attempted an outright remake in 2001. It was a critically derided failure. A decade later, Hollywood would get it right with a new trilogy that serves as both prequel and soft reboot. Though the recent trilogy was exceptional, this edition of The Chopping Block will re-visit the five movies that comprised the original franchise.
5 – Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
The final movie in the original Planet of the Apes saga is easily the weakest. Following the events of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar now rules over a community of intelligent apes amidst a world recovering from nuclear holocaust. Caesar struggles to balance compassion for the surviving humans with the more militaristic gorillas’ insistence on enslaving their former oppressors. Matters are further complicated when a group subterranean mutated human threaten the apes with war.
Unfortunately, Battle for the Planet of Apes is the cheapest looking movie of the franchise.
In terms of its story, Battle for the Planet of the Apes tackles many of the same themes from the earlier movies. Considering it’s the fifth film of a series, the sequel still has grand philosophical ambitions. Unfortunately, Battle for the Planet of Apes is the cheapest looking movie of the franchise. Ultimately, it looks like director J Lee Thompson cobbled the sequel together quickly. The ape makeup effects still impress. Likewise, Roddy McDowall is brilliant again. None of this matters as the movie is dreadfully slow and often boring.
4 – Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
The first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, feels like two very different movies. One of those movies is quite good. Unfortunately, the other movie, which happens to take up much of the first half, is not so good. Much of Beneath the Planet of the Apes plays out like a rehash of the original. That is, Charlton Heston-lookalike James Franciscus crashes onto the future Earth search for Taylor. In short order, the apes capture Franciscus’ ‘Brent’ before he escapes to the ‘Forbidden Zone’. Yes, it’s like director Ted Post condensed the first movie into 45 minutes. No Roddy McDowall. And no Charlton Heston.
… the ending is uncompromisingly bleak.
Things pick up dramatically when Heston’s ‘Taylor’ finally appears. In fact, Beneath the Planet of the Apes is quite good in its final 30 minutes. The introduction of intelligent mutant humans who worship a nuclear missile adds a whole new subtext to the series. In addition, the movie’s climatic battle is among the series’ better moments. And the ending is uncompromisingly bleak. If only Beneath the Planet of the Apes had committed itself to this kind of storytelling from the start, it would rank higher.
3 – Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth film of the series, is kind of an odd movie. On the one hand, Conquest has the unenviable task of connecting Escape From the Planet of the Apes’ contemporary setting with the original movie’s world. As a result, there are some strange lapses in logic. How did apes evolve so quickly between Escape and this movie? And why the mass extinction of cats and dogs as the rationale for enslaving apes? Early glacial pacing doesn’t help either. But Roddy McDowall elevates the movie as the revolutionary ‘Caesar’. In spite of more strains on logic, the movie’s climatic ape uprising is worth the wait. It’s a conclusion that finally gives us a ‘Planet of the Apes’.
2 – Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971)
Let’s face it, Beneath the Planet of the Apes didn’t leave much room for a sequel. But box office returns take precedence over logic. Regardless of some very convenient retconning, Escape From the Planet of the Apes is the best sequel of the franchise. Director Don Taylor wisely brought Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter back to reprise their roles from the original movie. Unlike Beneath, which largely recycled the first movie, Escape From the Planet of the Apes cleverly reverses the original’s story. Using Brent’s abandoned spacecraft, Corneilius and his pregnant wife, Zira, travel back to 1970’s America.
It’s a premise that actually allows the series to infuse a bit of humour missing from the first two movies. For much of its first half, Escape From the Planet of the Apes is an amusing ‘fish out of water’ tale. However, Zira’s accidental reveal that their future is one where apes have enslaved humans sees the movie adopt a darker tone. It’s in the movie’s back half where the series’ deeper moral and philosophical themes surface. Though the movie’s ending raises questions about the series’ time-travelling, it’s still a franchise moment that fills in some major blanks. And for fans who have little in debating the science of time travel, the ending is utterly tragic and heartbreaking.
1 – The Planet of the Apes (1968)
The Planet of the Apes is one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time. As such, it’s placement on this list shouldn’t come as a surprise. If you’re watching the movie for the first time, Planet of the Apes twists and turns with plenty of suspense. Simply put, the ending is one of the most iconic movie twists ever. Even by today’s standards, the ape makeup effects still impress. Some of the cultural references in ape society offer moments of levity. It’s also an instantly quotable movie, filled with memorable dialogue. With regards to subtext, Planet of the Apes delivers what would have been a searing commentary on racism, slavery, and evolution for the time period. This is an indispensable movie that should be on all cinephiles’ ‘must watch’ list.