Going Ape: A Review of the “Planet of the Apes” Film Series

My young friends Joel and Jonah recently completed a Planet of the Apes marathon with their father, so this seemed like an appropriate time to reflect on the five films comprising the original Apes series. It’s impossible to discuss these films without addressing the twist at the end of the first one…so if you haven’t seen any of them, then count this as your spoiler alert!

That twist involves time travel, of course, and that’s what makes the Apes series unique. Chronologically, the series’ plotline ends and starts with the second film Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and the films form an endless loop. At the climax of Beneath, the Earth is destroyed…but three characters travel back in time and initiate the events that ultimately lead to the destruction of the world. It’s both confusing and cool! And now, here are my capsule reviews of each film, plus my rankings and a second perspective:

1. Planet of the Apes (1968). Four astronauts crash land on a planet where apes rule and humans are a primitive race. The apes are divided into three classes: the chimpanzees are scientists; the orangutans are politicians; and the gorillas comprise the military and police. When astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) is captured, the apes learn that he can speak and reason like them. Scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter) help Taylor escape. At the end of the film, Taylor sees the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand along the shoreline and realizes that his ship landed on the Earth of the future. Rod Serling was among the writers who adapted Pierre Boulle’s novel Monkey Planet for the screen. He is typically credited with adding the time travel twist (which wasn’t in the book). The film was a big box office hit in ’68 and critics were kind to it as well. John Chambers’ amazing ape make-up earned a special Academy Award. Seen today, Planet of the Apes is a solid picture with fine performances by McDowell, Hunter, and Maurice Evans as apes. The concluding revelation seems anti-climatic, but the ape civilization is nicely realized and the dialogue occasionally witty. The American Film Institute voted Heston’s famous line (“Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”) as the 66th most memorable in film history. Joel, Jonah, and I all the original Planet as 3rd best in the series—but it’s the most historically significant as the one that started it all. It’s the only one in my film library (thanks to my sister).

2. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). Another astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus), lands on the planet and eventually discovers a race of telepathic mutant humans who live underground and worship a nuclear bomb. When the apes attack the humans, a dying Taylor (Heston) sets off the bomb, thereby destroying the Earth. This glum sequel is content to rehash elements from the original without adding anything new of interest (the mutant humans are a rather boring addition). McDowell is sorely missed (David Watson took over as Cornelius) and Heston’s role is merely a cameo. At least, critics thought the explosive climax put an end to additional sequels. Little did they know! Joel, Jonah, and I all rate it as the worst of the five films.

3. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). We learn that Zira (Kim Hunter), Cornelius (McDowell), and Dr. Milo escaped prior to the Earth’s destruction in Taylor’s repaired spaceship. They go through the same time warp that Taylor and Brent did…and wind up on Earth in 1971. Shortly after an uncivilized gorilla kills Dr. Milo, Zira reveals that she and Cornelius are intelligent and can speak—thus becoming media celebrities! However, things go bad when an evil scientist learns that, in the future, apes revolt against humans and take over the world. Zira and Cornelius are killed, but not before their baby Milo is secretly smuggled to safety. Escape is the smartest film in the series on two levels. First, it cleverly circumvents the closed ending of the preceding film and sets the plot in motion for the rest of the series. Secondly, screenwriter Paul Dehn (Goldfinger) has a lot of fun with the celebrity status achieved by the intelligent apes. Joel and Jonah rank it as only the 4th best, but it’s my choice for No. 2.

4. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). We learn that a disease has killed off the Earth’s dogs and cats and humans have taken apes as pets. As the apes evolve, they eventually became slave laborers. Milo, now known as Caesar, leads a successful ape revolt against human society and announces at the end: “Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!” The original ending had Caesar ordering the execution of his former master. When that tested poorly with audiences, a new ending was filmed with Caesar’s wife speaking for the first time to plead her husband to show mercy. A thought-provoking and worthy sequel to Escape, the fourth film provides the crucial motivation for the apes’ takeover. It also showcases McDowell, who gives a strong performance as the son of his previous character (Cornelius). The reworked ending is very effective, concluding the film on a positive note. I rate it the best in the series, while Joel and Jonah have it at No. 2.

5. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Told in flashback, the final installment picks up ten years after Conquest with a world divided after a nuclear war. Caesar learns the future of Earth after watching historical footage of his parents discussing it. Meanwhile, the post-nuclear humans mount an attack against the apes. Caesar defeats the humans and also General Aldo, a gorilla military leader who has been plotting a coup. Caesar learns that the world cannot exist with apes and humans fighting one another—they must learn to co-exist peacefully. Battle is an adequate conclusion in terms of wrapping up the plot and suggesting a future of hope. However, it’s not as inventive as the previous two installments and the battle scenes are unimaginative. Still, Joel and Jonah thought it was the best in the series; I ranked it at No. 4.

In 1974, CBS launched a short-lived TV series called Planet of the Apes starring Ron Harper and James Naughton as astronauts and Roddy McDowell as a chimpanzee named Galen (no relation to Cornelius or Caesar). Several episodes were strung together and shown as made-for-TV movies, starting with Back to the Planet of the Apes. There was also an animated 1976 series called Return to the Planet of the Apes that lasted for 13 episodes. And finally, there was Tim Burton’s best-forgotten 2001 remake of the 1968 film that started it all.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!

We originally ran this guest article in March and are reprinting it today as part of our ongoing Summer of Sci-Fi series of posts.