When Charlton Heston yelled, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” he helped launch one of the most influential franchises in film history. Taking a cue from the original Star Trek, the Planet of the Apes movies explored controversial social themes disguised under its hi-concept science fiction setting.
The studio behind Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox, cranked out four sequels on a near-yearly basis. The result was a collection of five eclectic films that varied in tone while strung together by a loose continuity. In 2011, Fox rebooted the property with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, producing a movie miracle. This new version of the Apes wasn’t just good. It was very, very good and had no right to be good as it turned out to be.
For anyone new to the world of intelligent apes or an old fan, find here The Planet of the Apes movies ranked.
1 – The Planet of the Apes (1968)
The iconic original that kicked off the franchise still tops the series. A very loose adaption of Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel, the story follows the spaceship Icarus crash landing on a strange alien planet. Taylor, the ship’s captain, and two surviving crew members discover that intelligent apes are the dominant species and hunt passive, mindless humans. When captured, they must navigate the primitive political and religious climate of this strange simian culture that mirrors our own.
While the creaks are starting to show on the 1968 classic, the charismatic performances of the cast paper over the film’s shortcomings. Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, and Maurice Evans manage to give fully fleshed performances while covered head to toe in prosthetic ape makeup. But it’s Charlton Heston’s magnetic performance that carries the picture, giving Taylor a cynical sneer far removed from the bland heroic figures of the era.
The smart screenplay by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling elevated the B-Movie premise with metaphors of institutional racism and the separation of church and state. Serling, the mastermind behind the Twilight Zone, brings much of his popular TV series DNA to the film. It’s a good bet he thought of the shocking, twist-filled ending that pushed Planet of the Apes into iconic territory. As Taylor and Nova explore the forbidden zone, they find the remains of the Statue of Liberty, confirming that this “planet of the apes” is Earth.
2 – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
The second of the rebooted series, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, became the rare sequel that improved on the original. Where Rise of the Planet of the Apes ended with the outbreak of the simian plague that wiped out much of the world’s population, Dawn picks up a decade later as the survivors try to rebuild in the aftermath. In this post-apocalyptic setting, the humans form an uneasy truce with Caesar’s rapidly growing intelligent ape tribe. But distrust from both sides and man’s self-destructive nature destroy the fragile peace, igniting a violent clash of civilizations.
Filmmaker Matt Reeves inherited directing duties from Rupert Wyatt, giving the franchise a gritty makeover. Reeves injects a sense of gravitas into the sequel, bringing a Shakespearian tone to Caesar, wearily leading his intelligent simian followers. When Reeves signed on to direct and co-write the third picture, the reboot trilogy gained a cohesive vision that ties these films together.
Reeves also assembled an impressive cast with Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman as the earnest, if guarded, leaders of the small human village forced to deal with this strange emerging Ape tribe. But it’s the actors behind the mo-cap ape characters, particularly Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, who steal the movie from the humans. The improved motion capture effects shine here, allowing the actors to move and give ape-size performances with near photo-realistic precision.
3 – War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
By just a hair, War for the Planet of the Apes snags the third spot. The concluding entry of the reboot franchise finds Caesar and his ape tribe hunted by a rogue military faction called Alpha-Omega, led by their cult-like leader known as “The Colonel.”
By far the darkest film of the all Planet of the Apes movies, War uses the framework of the great war classics like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Platoon, and The Great Escape. Director Matt Reeves flexes his filmmaking muscles, boldly telling the story from the POV of the apes with those pesky humans as the villains. The film goes to dark places, like introducing a mutation to the simian plague that turns humans into mute, mindless creatures.
Woody Harrelson plays “The Colonel,” representing the human faction, going against type with a feral-like performance. Speaking of the humans, my one quibble with the film is the absence of Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Kodi Smit-McPhee from the previous entry. Those engaging, well-drawn characters are never mentioned, and we never learn their fate.
4 – Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
After the critical and financial disaster of Tim Burton’s flawed 2001 Planet of the Apes remake, Fox decided to reboot the franchise. Thanks to a solid screenplay and clean, crisp direction from Rupert Wyatt, the POA reboot became the surprise hit of 2011. The first entry of the new trilogy follows research scientist Will Rodman trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's, a condition that ails his father. Will develops a treatment that helps the brain repair itself and tests the experimental medication on a chimpanzee called Caesar. This leads to Caesar becoming super intelligent and giving his new ape buddies the smart meds.
The secret ingredient that made the new Planet of the Apes movies so compelling was the performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar, using motion capture to turn him into a believable chimpanzee. This represented the most perfect marriage of intellectual property and visual effects since Jurassic Park. And even though the CGI has a few rubbery shots, all the ape characters move with a photo-realistic sheen.
The reboot smartly made Caesar the central figure, and the new trilogy nicely maps out Caesar’s journey from a chimp raised by humans to the messiah-like leader of the new dominant species. Despite a clumsy post-credit scene introducing the simian plague that wipes out humanity, Rise of the Planet of the Apes became the pitch-perfect example of how to reboot a classic property.
5 – Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
It’s hard to believe, but all the classic Planet of the Apes movies garnered a “G” rating, except for Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. By far the most violent of the original series, this PG-rated entry stands near the original in quality and social commentary. Set 20 years after the events of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Caesar, the secret son of Cornelius and Zira, has grown into a curious chimp eager to explore the human world. But when Caesar gets captured and his caretaker Armando killed, the young chimp embraces his inner Che Guevara and leads an ape slave revolt against the oppressive fascist government.
Conquest creates the most visually striking entry of the original Planet of the Apes movies with a dystopian atmosphere of concrete buildings and brutalist architecture. The film wears its racial injustice metaphor on its sleeve, featuring violent imagery inspired by police beating protestors during the struggle for civil rights. The metaphors hit like a sledgehammer at times.
Roddy McDowall continues his Ape legacy by playing Cornelius' son Caesar, and this version informs Andy Serkis’ more radical take in the reboot trilogy. Ricardo Montalban shines in his short screen time as Caesar’s human caretaker, Armando, and their emotional bond fuels the chimp’s tragic turn to extremism.
6 – Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971)
When a franchise has its main characters travel back in time to a modern-day setting, that’s usually a sign that the property has jumped the shark. But Escape from the Planet of the Apes bucked that trend by becoming the most charming and meta of the Planet of the Apes movies. This entry finds Cornelius, Zira, and their associate Milo traveling to 1973 Earth using Taylor’s original Icarus spacecraft.
During Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Cornelius pulled Icarus from its watery grave and, with his primitive technology, repaired the advanced spaceship. This allowed the Ape trio to escape the planet-destroying blast of the Alpha Omega nuclear device, with the shockwaves sending them back 2000 years. All this happens offscreen. But for viewers who can accept this convoluted exposition dump, Escape has many charms.
Cornelius and Zira take center stage in Escape, making up for their minimal screen time in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Despite Charlton Heston’s star wattage dominating the first two entries, the popular chimp couple played by Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter became the MVPs of the franchise. Watching them interact in a 1970s L.A. setting, becoming social media-influencing celebrities, gives the picture a goofy, meta tone.
Escape also features an early acting turn by Eric Braeden, a.k.a. Victor Newman from the long-running soap The Young and the Restless, giving the villain Dr. Hasslein an interesting layer of complexity. Hasslein figures out that this chimp couple kickstarts the eventual simian dominant future headed humankind’s way. The film turns dark in the final act with a bold Shakespearean climax, leaving most of our main characters bleeding to death. By the third entry, these bleak endings had become a tradition for the Planet of the Apes movies.
7 – Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
What happens when a surprise hit film fails to secure its leading star for the impending sequel? 20th Century Fox faced that dilemma when developing the Planet of the Apes sequel, as Charlton Heston did not want to return. Heston eventually compromised, agreeing to a reduced role where his screen time totals about 15 minutes.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes focuses on Brent, part of a second astronaut crew sent to find the missing Icarus. When underground-dwelling mutated humans capture Taylor, Brent searches for help at the Ape village seen in the first film. From there, Beneath becomes a weak retelling of the original film, with Brent in the Taylor role.
TV actor James Fransiscus plays Brent like Heston’s cute little brother, and it’s clear that he’s a stand-in for Taylor. The movie also misses Roddy McDowall as Cornelius, with David Watson briefly taking over, losing the charm McDowall brought to the role. The film also suffers from a heavily reduced budget, as the background apes wear cheap pullover masks that disservice John Chambers’ groundbreaking prosthetic designs.
But the glorious, operatic “everyone dies” ending makes this sequel worth watching. Heston makes the most of his limited screen time during the finale, and the film springs to life. Even the most cynical cinephiles will gasp at the nihilistic last 5 minutes. How this earned a “G” rating boggles the mind.
8 – The Planet of the Apes (2001)
On paper, Tim Burton directing a remake of Planet of the Apes seemed like a sure thing. In execution, Burton’s sensibilities as a director clashed with the material, producing an odd (ahem) beast of a film. In this iteration of the story, Mark Wahlberg plays an Air Force astronaut who crash lands on a planet where–obviously–evolved talking apes rule over primitive humans.
With some mild variations, the plot remains the same as the original, minus the shocking twist finale. This version tried its own twist ending that’s more in spirit with Pierre Boulle’s novel, but it lacks the punch of the 1968 classic. Burton’s visuals dazzle as always, but his quirky humor derails the twists and turns of what could be a compelling story. There’s also an icky cross-species flirtation between the human astronaut and chimp female lead, Ari (Helena Bonham Carter). Wahlberg, a last-minute replacement for original star Matt Damon, never seems comfortable playing the heroic leading man.
Despite the film’s faults, Burton assembled a fantastic cast of actors to play the ape characters, including Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Paul Giamatti, David Warner, and Michael Clarke Duncan. Burton wisely avoided CGI chimp shenanigans, bringing on the acclaimed Rick Baker to design the detailed makeup prosthetics, creating a gritty, tactile ape world.
9- Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
The last film of the classic Planet of the Apes movies finds the franchise running on fumes. 20th Century Fox developed Battle of the Planet of the Apes to close out the film series and launch the 1974 TV show in hopes of keeping their merchandising juggernaut alive. The result is a stylistically strange picture that tries to serve many masters but can’t function as its own entity.
Set 15 years after Caesar’s simian revolution, a cataclysmic nuclear war has wiped out most of humanity, with a small band of survivors forming an uneasy truce with the ruling ape species. After an ill-advised excursion into the Forbidden Zone, Caesar attracts the attention of mutated humans who plan to invade the largely peaceful Ape-Human village. But Caesar faces the dual threat of a mutiny by the violent Gorilla faction that believes humans should be their slaves. This culminates in a battle royale that could end Caesar’s peaceful world order.
If the plot sounds familiar, much of it was repurposed for the second reboot entry, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which paints the same story with much darker brushstrokes. Sadly, the final POA movie suffers the same flaws as earlier entries with its cheap-looking budget, clunky plotting, and scientifically dubious storylines. The movie still has a socially thematic undercurrent, with this chapter exploring a clash of civilizations and how it takes hard work to keep the peace versus the easy violence of war.
The film became notorious for a wildly out-of-place cameo by legendary director/actor John Huston, who dons the ape makeup to play a character called the “Lawgiver.” The director of such classics as The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle appears in short bookend sequences that never jive with the rest of the picture.
10 – The Planet of the Apes (1974) & Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975)
After the original film series ended, Fox Studios kept the franchise alive with a short-lived TV show and a Saturday morning cartoon. Sadly, both projects arrived DOA as they essentially copied elements from the 1968 classic, adding nothing of interest to the POA mythology.
The 1974 TV series The Planet of the Apes follows a pair of astronauts who crash land on the ape-dominated future Earth and become fugitives in this upside-down world. With the aid of a sympathetic chimp named Galen, these astronauts search for a way to return to their timeline. Unfortunately, the show only lasted 14 episodes before the network axed it. Despite uncredited script work by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling and Roddy McDowall playing another version of his popular chimp character, the show never carved out an identity of its own.
After the cancellation of the TV show, Fox launched the even shorter-lived Saturday morning cartoon series Return to the Planet of the Apes. Using the same animation style of the 1970s Star Trek cartoon, this version features three astronauts arriving in the simian ruling future and…wash, rinse, repeat. A product of its time, the cartoon put the franchise into hibernation until the Tim Burton 2001 remake.