The Planet of the Apes (2001)
Look, I love Tim Burton, I’ve been a fan since way back, but when he sucks he sucks hard. Golf balls and garden hoses come to mind. Frankly, his Planet is perhaps one of the worst films ever made. It’s certainly the worst film he’s ever made. It’s so bad in fact that, even though I haven’t seen any of them, I put the 14 episodes of the Planet of the Apes TV series and the 13 episodes of the Return to the Planet of the Apes animated TV series in front of it. Honestly, it shouldn’t even be allowed on the same page with those other movies. If you want an abject lesson in how not to reboot a franchise, this is it. Honestly, I don’t even remember why I hated it so much, except the film stuck me as being remarkably stupid and cheesy. Avoid at all costs.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
The lowest budget, last gasp of the original series is still pretty good. Yes, it’s crude. Yes those ape masks suck, but it’s a strangely compelling, strangely philosophical film. J. Lee Thompson’s direction is economical and muscular. And yes, that is 70’s singer-songwriter Paul Williams in an ape suit. Guess what? He’s pretty damned good. But what’s really interesting is how many parallels can be found in it to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Besides, to get in the #7 spot it only had to be better than…
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
What’s great about the Apes movies is they never just settled into repeating themselves like so many film franchises do. Each film of the original five was a completely original work (with the exception of the first half of Beneath) and each has its own charms. Here, working with a lower budget, the action is brought to Earth as Cornelius and Zira, who’s (duh) escaped from the planet of the apes arrive in 1970’s Los Angeles. The movie is more of a conspiracy thriller as well as commentary on society as first the apes are feted by society and then targeted for assassination as the authorities realize that their arrival may be the trigger for the end of humanity. Like Beneath, the final twist is a zinger.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
Conquest director J. Lee Thompson claims the film is a parable for the Watts riots which tore Los Angeles apart in 1965 and resulted in34 deaths, 3,000 arrests and blocks upon blocks of the City of Angels burned to the ground. The film, low budget as it is (and each succeeding sequel saw its budget cut) used the just built Century City in LA as its version of the future. With its wide-open plazas and brutalist architecture, it’s perfect. Apes are now the underclass, slaves, basically, serving at the whim of their masters. Caesar, the intelligent ape born in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, organizes the revolution. And no, it is not televised. But it is awesome. What’s amazing is to find yourself rooting for the apes as they sweep humanity from the stage.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
I know a lot of people consider this one to be slow, dull, silly and the only film in the entire cycle that repeats an earlier film, I still love it. Maybe because its so goofy. Charlton Heston, picking up right where we left him in the first film, promptly and mysteriously disappears. (He apparently only agreed to do the film if he didn’t have to be in more than 20 minutes of it.) James Franciscus takes the lead as Brent, yet another astronaut (sent to find out what in fuck happened to Taylor) who crash lands on the future ape world. Searching for Taylor, he discovers the underground ruins of Manhattan which are now ruled by a race of telepathic mutants who use their psychic powers for all sorts of fun such as forcing Brent and Taylor to fight to the (almost) death. Meanwhile, they’ve got a “doomsday” bomb chocked away in an old cathedral which they worship as God. Yes, it’s silly, maybe boring, but you want cynicism? Check out the ending of this bad boy.
Expanding on the ideas of Rise, Dawn ups the ante spectacle-wise. It’s the movie that finally breaks one of the big problems with CGI, namely getting creatures jumping and landing to look remotely real. (I Am Legend, anyone?) Motion capture has finally come of age and the results are stupendous. But more importantly, the film is an emotional roller coaster. What I love about this film is there are no bad guys. Yes, there is a villain, several of them in fact, but you can understand their motivations and even feel for them. But like the previous films, this is a dark one that doesn’t leave you filled with hope. Taylor’s rants about the savagery and suicidal stupidity of humanity (and apemanity) in the first film truly have come home to roost.
Okay, it’s a tie between the two new films. I put Rise first because it came first. Rise is one of those films you never though could happen, a big-budget summer blockbuster that is as smart as it is spectacular. It’s also a deeply human, deeply disturbing and deeply moving film. The fact that one can become so emotionally invested in a CGI ape is a remarkable achievement all in its own.
Planet of the Apes (1974)
Yes. The 2001 Tim Burton, Mark Walberg version. And no, I’m not kidding. Okay, I am kidding. Big time. That movie fucking sucked. I’m actually speaking of the 1968 masterpiece starring Charlton Heston and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Schaffner never gets the credit he deserves, but look at his resume. He collaborated with Heston on the earlier and magnificent The Warlord (which led Heston to recommend him for Apes) as well as other 70’s classics like Papillon and Patton. An unsung genius. His work on Apes is exceptional, as is the script and cast. What’s remarkable about the first Planet of the Apes is how the cynical tone it sets echoes throughout the entire series, except for the dreadful Tim Burton version which, (spoiler alert) comes in dead last. Fuck that stupid movie.
What do you think? Where would you rank War for the Planet of the Apes?