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Ranking the Planet of the Apes Franchise

May 7, 2024
Tyler Banark
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As one of the most unsung yet successful franchises in film, the Planet of the Apes franchise, much like its subject material, has evolved. It all started as a sci-fi adventure film that took the world by storm in 1968, which inevitably led to a hit franchise in the 70s. The sequels weren’t as critically successful as the original (as you’ll see reflected in this ranking), but they still made a big enough splash to warrant four of them. Tim Burton attempted to revitalize the franchise in 2001 but failed in doing so (also reflected in the rankings). However, his flop provided a silver lining in the form of a catalyst for another reboot that changed the franchise forever. Now, the newest series is looking to continue with its fourth entry, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. Now is the best time to look back and rank all nine films in this primal franchise once and for all.

Spoiler Warning: Specific story points will be mentioned when talking about some films

9. Planet of the Apes (2001)

I admire Burton for twisting the synopsis of the original to avoid being a scene-for-scene remake, but then he also fails to follow through by making overt callbacks that now feel out of place (what was up with that twist ending!?!). The combination of Wahlberg and Burton is one of the oddest pairings since De Niro and Tarantino. But while the latter worked against expectations, this one unsurprisingly struggled. There’s also Tim Roth doing way too much behind pounds of unconvincing makeup. Thankfully, this single entry can be easily forgotten.

8. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

As the final part in the original series, Battle finds itself recycling several elements from the previous outings, all of which at least tried to further a theme within this universe. The story sees apes and humans living in peace, but when Cornelius learns of his past, he brings light to the mutant humans from Beneath. There’s also corrupt general Aldo leading an uprising against Caesar in hopes of planting Apes at the top of the food chain. What unfolds between these plots makes for numerous continuity errors in the franchise, specifically how this prequel ties into the 1968 original. It’s never a great sign when you’re franchise’s big send-off poses more questions than it answers.

6. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Taking place years after the deaths of Zira and Cornelius, Conquest sees their son Milo (now named Caesar for some reason) grown up and living in a world where apes have become slaves to humans. Cats and dogs are a thing of the past, and apes have become popular pets, leading Caesar to lead an uprising (take a shot every time that word gets mentioned in this ranking) that starts the downfall of humanity. Roddy McDowall, who played Cornelius in Escape and the first movie, plays Caesar and gives a noteworthy monologue to end the movie. But the run-of-the-mill plot and lazy casting choices make this into a rote entry. At least Rise was able to improve upon the basic premise decades later.

6. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Sure, the idea of talking apes is inherently weird, but Beneath is just plain absurd. Although it continues to build and expand upon the ape world, there are some serious “jump the shark” moments such as mutant humans worshipping an atomic bomb. On the other hand, the technical aspects were improved by the bigger budget, with the makeup design still being impressive. Charlton Heston’s screentime was drastically reduced, with new addition James Franciscus taking over the main human role. Was it all worth the effort? Perhaps, even if what it's showcasing raises an eyebrow amongst its viewers.

5. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

Without a doubt the best of the original sequels, Escape took the franchise in a vastly different direction. It sees Zira and Cornelius getting out of Ape City and traveling back to 1973 when the humans ran the world. Through seeing the world differently, Zira and Cornelius get a slight taste of their own medicine as the humans look down on them. The only difference is that other humans are more welcoming to them than the Apes treated Taylor, Nova, and the other humans. Escape also takes the approach of being more character-driven, as we see Zira and Cornelius undergo development, as well as their side of the fallout seen in Beneath and navigating an Earth run by humans. The only fluke was the extended runtime and lack of action, although that ended up being the least of the franchises’s problems the longer it went on in this era.

4. Planet of the Apes (1968)

The one that started it all, 1968's Planet of the Apes is a feat of grand filmmaking. Giving the tone and stakes of a blockbuster (before the term was ever coined), director Franklin J. Schaffner crafts a sci-fi adventure of epic proportions. The Oscar-winning makeup design is impeccable, even if it later becomes dated as the franchise turned to sleek CGI in the 21st Century. Charlton Heston leads the cast as Taylor, an astronaut who's lightyears from home and gets caught in an alien world where humans are feral to apes. Michael Wilson and Rod Serling's script remains timeless as it discusses themes of social class that can also be interpreted as metaphors for a political conversation. The same goes for the iconic plot twist, which left much to explore in the years to come.

3. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

The conclusion to Caesar’s story, War for the Planet of the Apes is a heartfelt sendoff to one of the most impressive character arcs in recent memory. Andy Serkis gives it his all in his final outing as Caesar who, at this point, is fed up with humans. The war that started at the end of Dawn is now in full swing, which reaches a pivotal moment when Caesar’s wife and eldest son are killed in a raid. Woody Harrelson makes for a great antagonist, and Steve Zahn is a nice addition as the comedic Bad Ape, although a lot of the humor around the character can be repetitive. That feeling of spinning wheels also extends to the plot as much more time was spent at the Colonel’s base than was needed, preventing the fulfillment of the title. Still, it was more than a fitting ending to the reboot trilogy.

2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

The movie that changed it all for the better, Rise of the Planet of the Apes reignited a fire that wasn’t seen in the franchise since the 1968 original. Only this time, Rise provides a much stronger origin to how the apes got their intelligence. Andy Serkis may have been working in this industry for years up until this point, but it was Rise that cemented himself as a movie star. He captures Caesar perfectly and, thanks to his production company The Imaginarium, presents special effects that had never been seen beforehand. Serkis isn’t alone in front of the camera as he’s joined by a great ensemble consisting of John Lithgow, Freida Pinto, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, and James Franco. Contrary to almost every other entry in the overall franchise, Rise could have benefited from a longer runtime.

1. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

As the top dog (or ape) of the entire franchise, Dawn not only ups the ante from Rise, but also makes for one of the best modern sequels. It tells a compelling story that sheds light on both sides of the apes vs. humans conflict, with director Matt Reeves making quite the statement for himself. Everyone is at the top of their game, including Serkis, Jason Clarke, Toby Kebbell as the villainous Koba, and Michael Giacchino sneakily turning in one of his best scores. Rise may have kicked off the excitement for the new series, but Dawn was the one that made it something truly special.

You can follow Tyler and hear more of his thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd.

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