Ranking the Planet of the Apes Franchise

Drew Dietsch
Movies
Movies

The Planet of the Apes franchise is possibly the strongest franchise in blockbuster history. The series has always been smart and engaging, but which films are the best? And what happens when you throw the two television series into the mix? I’ve done all the math and science necessary to come up with the definitive ranking of all the Planet of the Apes films and TV shows. There’s no other ranking that gets it right but this one.

…Okay, so these are obviously my opinion and they are worthy of scrutiny, debate, and discussion. Feel free to let me know your thoughts on Twitter. With all that said, here’s how the entire Planet of the Apes franchise stacks up.

11. Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975)

This animated series had a lot of promise, and it’s worth noting that the actual design style of the cartoon is unique and cool. And seeing the ape civilization realized in a way that a film budget couldn’t do back then was admirable. But, it’s a cheesy ’70s cartoon at its core. Poor animation, lame characters, and bland voice acting make this an oddity only for hardcore fans like myself.

10. Planet of the Apes (1974 TV Series)

There are actually some bright spots in this attempt to take the series to television. The biggest asset is series stalwart Roddy McDowell as Galen, but the rest of the show quickly falls into formula trappings. Repetitive stories and a lack of real forward momentum after the first few episodes made this a short-lived venture. Again, this is one for die-hards. Everyone else can give it a pass.

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

The final entry in the classic Apes series isn’t terrible but it’s certainly a weak comparison to its predecessors. The anticipated battle between apes and humans isn’t backed up by a proper budget, and there are long stretches of the movie that get rather boring. Still, you get the always awesome Paul Williams as Virgil and Claude Akins as the rebellious Aldo. If you’re invested in the series, no reason to avoid this.

8. Planet of the Apes (2001)

Yes, Tim Burton’s infamous 2001 remake placed above an original series entry. It’s worth admitting that the movie is hampered primarily by a lot of bad performances and a nonsensical ending, but it’s also worth looking at the positives. Namely, Rick Baker’s jaw-dropping makeup effects. The fact that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar is a true crime. There are also some genuinely fun appearances by the likes of Paul Giamatti, Glenn Shadix, and even Charlton Heston in ape makeup. And the film is rarely boring, even if it does venture into awful territory. It’s not a good movie but it’s not a total travesty.

7. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

The first sequel takes an interesting angle by showcasing mutated humans fighting against the apes, and the tone of this one is surprisingly horrifying (the psychedelic scene of apes being crucified upside down is pure nightmare fuel). But, the actual plot features a retread of Heston’s arc from the first film through the eyes of a new character, Brent. Brent is a bargain bin version of Heston’s Taylor. Granted, the ending of this movie is shockingly nihilistic and deserves to be lauded for its brazenness.

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

I love all the Apes movies to some degree, but the entries before this are flawed at the very least. This is where we start getting into the really good stuff. Escape from the Planet of the Apes brings the series to the present day and does some Star Trek IV stuff fifteen years before Star Trek IV was released. Cornelius and Zira have a lot of fun traipsing around the 1970s and the movie has a lot of character humor that works. But, the ending of the film is the darkest and most shocking of the whole franchise. It’s a tonal shift that comes out of nowhere and hits you in the gut. A solid film that proves the versatility of the series.

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

No one expected the new reboot of Planet of the Apes to be great. Maybe it would be good, but not great. We were so wrong. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a complete surprise that introduced us to the character of Caesar and began a brand new approach to this storied saga. Though the human characters were a tad underdeveloped, it didn’t matter once Caesar took center stage. Andy Serkis and the other motion capture actors brought these apes to life and made them fully formed characters. This is one of the best blockbusters of the recent decade. And you know what? It’s not even the best of the rebooted series.

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

Director Matt Reeves stepped in to direct this sequel and he knocked it out of the park. The maturity of the series is in full force as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes explores such heavy issues as guns, war, and even the moral complications of murder. Toby Kebbell’s performance as Koba is astounding. I’d argue it’s one of the best screen villains in the last twenty years. And Serkis continues to turn Caesar into a multi-faceted and powerful character. The action in the film is tense and never glorified. This is a blockbuster aimed squarely at adults and it shines.

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

My review already covered this film’s achievement, but it deserves even more praise. War for the Planet of the Apes is a landmark in mainstream filmmaking. It’s a third entry in a trilogy that actually surpasses its predecessors by a mile. The emotional stakes, the dramatic heft, the superb direction, and basically everything and everyone involved is at the top of their game. If this is the last entry in this rebooted series, they went out on the highest of notes.

2. Planet of the Apes (1968)

The one that started it all. What’s amazing about Planet of the Apes is that it’s probably the most spoiled film in history. The twist ending is often plastered on the cover of any release of the film. And you know what? The movie loses none of its impact because of it. This is still one of the best sci-fi films in the history of American cinema. Yes, Charlton Heston’s acting is over-the-top but it actually adds to the heightened nature of the story. And the world of the apes is still incredibly intriguing to this day. The movie stands as a game-changer for makeup effects and taking science fiction in film very seriously. Don’t dismiss this because of its age. It’s a classic for a reason.

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

Okay, this one requires some explanation since I’m putting it over the original. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the most mature-minded of the original film series and features what might be Roddy McDowall’s greatest performance as Caesar, the ape who rises up and leads the initial revolution against humans. The film was incredibly timely in 1972 as it became a parallel for the tense race relations in America. It’s a compelling story that shows us the most interesting moment in the franchise’s timeline: when apes finally took over the planet.

Now, this only tops the first film if you see the unrated version with the original ending. The theatrical cut ends with a terrifying speech from Caesar about the destruction of humanity only to be undercut with a revised ending that has Caesar showing mercy and walking back everything he said. The unrated version nixes this and has Caesar and his army of apes murder their oppressors. It’s a darkly triumphant ending that puts the perfect period on the series at the time. You should watch the entire series since they all have their strong points. But, if you only see one Apes movie, make it this one.

Drew Dietsch
Drew Dietsch has written for CHUD.com, the News-Press, WhatCulture, and releases a weekly film review podcast, The Drew Reviews Podcast. He'll yak your ear off about horror movies, Jaws, RoboCop, and/or Batman if you let him. www.thedrewreviews.com
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