‘Ape’ to Z: A look back at all of the ‘Planet of the Apes’ films

Andy Serkis returns as Caesar, the leader of the apes, in “War for the Planet of the Apes.”
Andy Serkis returns as Caesar, the leader of the apes, in “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

Most everyone, including those who have never seen any of the films, has heard of “Planet of the Apes.”

Many can even quote some of the more famous lines from the 1968 classic, such as “It’s a mad house!” and “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn, dirty ape!”

A cultural phenomenon, the allegorical “Planet of the Apes” and its quartet of sequels spawned a TV show, an animated series and tons of merchandise, including comic books, action figures, jigsaw puzzles, Halloween costumes, trading cards, board games, lunch boxes, model kits and much more.

The original series, sometimes profound and sometimes playful yet rarely prosaic in its view of humanity on the evolutionary ropes, also inspired a reboot of the franchise with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014), and now “War for the Planet of the Apes” which opens in theaters Friday. To celebrate and prepare for the new movie, let’s take a look back at each of the previous films in the “Apes” franchise.

Planet of the Apes” (1968)

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Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall and Charlton Heston starred in the original “Planet of the Apes.” 20th Century Fox

The first “Planet of the Apes” movie kick-started a multimedia franchise and remains a fan favorite. Loosely adapted from Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel, “Monkey Planet” (“La Planète des Singes” in its native French), the movie stars Charlton Heston as an astronaut who crash-lands in the future on a desolate planet ruled by chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.

On this strange world, humans are subservient and mute.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner, working from a script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, made a number of changes in bringing the book to the screen, such as eliminating Taylor (Heston) having to learn a new language, but most work well, such as the memorable “Twilight Zone”-style ending.

Another smart addition to the movie is the apes’ fundamental adherence to their stuffy old religion, which is based on writings in the “Sacred Scrolls.”

Filled with adventure, satire, political intrigue and philosophy (faith versus science), along with dashes of humor, “Planet of the Apes” remains a definitive work of sociological science fiction that holds up extremely well, despite stiff (if charming) makeup designs (which won awards in 1968) and some campiness. Don’t let the “G” rating fool you: This is no kiddie picture. Grade: A

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

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Charlton Heston and James Franciscus star in the 1970 movie “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” Twentieth Century Fox

Though he has a couple of key scenes in the movie (and that’s about it), Charlton Heston wanted little to do with “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” In fact, he once called it “the first film I’ve ever done in my life for which I have no enthusiasm.”

As such, in stepped look-alike James Franciscus as an astronaut named Brent, searching for the lost expedition of the first film.

He lands on a future Earth ravaged by atomic war, meets Taylor’s gorgeous native friend Nova (Linda Harrison), discovers remnants of a New York City subway, and encounters a cult of telepathic (and annoyingly mute) humans who worship an unexploded nuclear missile. Above ground, the apes remain in charge.

Franciscus does a serviceable job in the lead role, and he’s got the good looks of an action hero, but, like most actors who didn’t play Moses and Ben-Hur, he lacks Heston’s charisma and screen presence.

The symbolism inherent to the franchise is laid on thick here, and the script isn’t as cerebral (relatively speaking) as the first film, but this is a largely respectable sequel and an entertaining adventure. Grade: B

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

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Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell in the 1971 movies “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” 20th Century Fox

Unlike “Planet of the Apes” and “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” this third film in the series takes place on present-day Earth, resulting in a talky film that eliminates many adventure elements of the previous movies.

However, it’s still a lot of fun, and it gives Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter, reprising their roles of Cornelius and Zira respectively, another chance to shine, as they did in the first movie.

A trio of apes, including Cornelius and Zira, escape to the 20th century on a space capsule, avoiding the deadly fate of the rest of Earth’s population at the end of “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” Renowned (if controversial) doctors sympathetic to Taylor in the first two movies, the couple must undergo the same type of patronizing treatment Taylor received in “Planet of the Apes,” leading to some truly comical moments. Delightful scenes abound in this underrated movie, such as when Zira takes a bubble bath and drinks wine, which she calls “grape juice plus.” Grade: B+

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

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Roddy McDowall is captured in the 1972 movie “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.” 20th Century Fox

The “Planet of the Apes” series is nothing if not an allegory about our own world, and “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” the fourth film in the series, continues this conceit by focusing on class warfare, prejudice and slavery. By the year 1991, humans, who first pampered their apes as pets, now treat them as servants and slaves, brutalizing them into learning menial tasks. Caesar (Roddy McDowell), the son of Cornelius and Zira, escapes captivity and leads an uprising against the humans.

Dark, militaristic, angry, authoritarian, action-packed and more than a little depressing, “Conquest” is the most violent of the original five films (particularly the torture of Caesar and the riots, which were modeled after the Watts riots of 1965), easily earning its “PG” rating. Watch for Ricardo Montalbán, who turns in a fine performance as Armando, Caesar’s surrogate father. Grade: B

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

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Claude Akins stars as the ape leader General Aldo in the 1973 movie “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” 2oth Century Fox

The final film in the original series, “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” is the weakest of the bunch, thanks to weaker production values, extensive use of flashbacks to the previous movies, and battle scenes that fail to match the scale and excitement of those in “Conquest.” The movie ends with an unsatisfying (and fairly ridiculous) image: a crying Caesar statue.

Fortunately, there are some things to recommend, including another fine performance by Roddy McDowell as Caesar, along with opening and closing monologues by the great John Huston. And you’ve gotta love (to hate) Aldo, the evil gorilla leader played by Claude Akins (who, fittingly enough, would later star with a Chimpanzee in “B.J. and the Bear”).

A cruel tyrant who wants to subjugate all humans, Aldo and his horse-riding army feud with the benevolent Caesar, a messianic figure whose exploits are taught to young people hundreds of years after his death.

The series doesn’t exactly go out with a whimper, but this finale is a far cry from the quality of the original film. Grade: C+

Planet of the Apes (2001)

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The 2001 reboot of “Planet of the Apes,” starring Mark Wahlberg, was directed by Tim Burton. 20th Century Fox

Expectations ran high when word got out that Tim Burton was “reimagining” “Planet of the Apes” for a new generation of filmgoers. There hadn’t been a new feature film in the franchise in almost three decades, and fans were excited to see what the acclaimed director of such favorites as “Batman” (1989) and “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) could do with the property.

Sadly, it turned out to be a low point in “Apes” lore. As in the original, an astronaut crash-lands on a planet where intelligent apes dominate subservient humans, but Mark Wahlberg’s Captain Leo Davidson is a bore compared to Charlton Heston’s George Taylor.

Worse, virtually all of the philosophical overtones that made the first movie more than a simple adventure film have been gutted from this version, making it largely pointless.

I say “largely” because there are two bright spots: Helena Bonham Carter as Ari, a charming chimpanzee who monkeys around with Davidson, and Paul Giamatti as Limbo, a wisecracking con artist who delivers the film’s best lines.

These characters give Burton’s otherwise ape-palling film some life. Grade: D+

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

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Andy Serkis as Caesar and James Franco as scientist Will Rodman in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” 20th Century Fox

A decade after the regrettable Tim Burton remake (ahem, reimagining), the “Planet of the Apes” franchise got back on its feet with this entertaining prequel.

James Franco plays scientist Will Rodman, who works at a San Francisco research facility that is testing an experimental, intelligence-enhancing drug on apes. One of these test subjects is Bright Eyes (a cheeky reference to the original “Planet of the Apes”), the mother of a baby chimp, which Rodman takes home to raise.

Rodman’s life is complicated. Not only does he play surrogate father to “little Caesar,” who rebels after he reaches maturity, he must care for his aging father (John Lithgow), who has Alzheimer’s disease. Further, his place of employment inadvertently creates a deadly virus.

Rodman is a likable enough hero, but the real star of the show is Caesar, brought to life via the magic of CGI and a motion-captured Andy Serkis (“King Kong,” the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy). Even with the advanced special effects, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” could have come off as silly, but it doesn’t, thanks to good acting and a solid script.

For full impact, be sure and hang around for the mid-credits scene. Grade: B+

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

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Jason Clarke and Andy Serkis in the 2014 movie “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” 20th Century Fox

Set 10 years after the events of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Dawn” takes place in a convincing post-apocalyptic San Francisco, when the vast majority of humans have been wiped out by the virus created by scientists in “Rise.”

The apes haven’t seen a human in a couple of years until they encounter one in the Muir Woods (near San Francisco) where the apes live. Unfortunately, said human is a gun-wielding jerk who panics and draws first blood — the initial shot in an eventual war between the two species.

Although James Franco appears via brief flashback scenes, the human cast is all new, including Gary Oldman and Keri Russell, who turn in strong performances.

Andy Serkis returns as Caesar, leader of the apes; his authority is challenged by Koba, a bonobo who hates humans because he was mistreated by them. Koba’s beef with Caesar stems from the latter’s decision to let the people stay in the forest to power up their home base.

The conflict between the two apes, as well as between the apes and the humans, ably sets the stage for the exciting climax, and for the new film. Grade: B+

Brett Weiss is the author of “Retro Pop Culture A to Z: From Atari 2600 to Zombie Films”