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This year, the Planet of the Apes franchise is celebrating its 49th year in existence with its ninth theatrical release: Matt Reeves' War For The Planet Of The Apes. It's already being hailed as one of the best films of the summer (if not the year), and is looking at big box office numbers. But it still begs the question: where does it rank among the other movies in this beloved sci-fi universe? Thankfully, we're here to provide the answer.
Below and on the next few pages you'll find our complete rankings of the Planet of the Apes movies -- and we're willing to bet that it stirs up a good bit of conversation. Click through the pages, read why we put each title in its designated place, and then hit the comments section below with your personal rankings of this beloved franchise!
9. Battle For The Planet Of The Apes
As we'll discuss throughout this list, the vast majority of the Planet of the Apes movies are really great -- but there's are reasons we say "the vast majority" instead of "all." One of those reasons is J. Lee Thompson's Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, which is a really disappointing movie. While it should be great to see a world in its earliest post-human stages, the reality is that it's a mostly boring film that feels like it was made just to help perpetuate the franchise.
While the best of the Planet of the Apes movies feel like they really have something to say about society and humanity, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes is a mostly empty vessel that lacks the intelligence and emotionality of its predecessors. Perhaps the worst part about it, though, is that its ending is entirely lame, and audiences had to live with it for 28 years -- which is to say right up until the arrival of the second worst Planet of the Apes movie...
8. Tim Burton's Planet Of The Apes
Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes is definitely not a good movie. It's script is ridiculous and all over the place, both Mark Wahlberg and Estella Warren are totally miscast, and it quite simply pales in comparison to the brilliant original, which is ultimately the worst thing that a remake can do. It features none of the creativity of the sequels that preceded it, and thanks to the titles that followed, it really has next to no place or real legacy within the larger franchise.
There is a very specific reason why we didn't rank it last on this list, however, and it's because of the jaw-dropping special effects and make-up. Rick Baker was responsible for an incredible number of genius designs during his career, and 2001's Planet of the Apes features some of his greatest work. Made long before digital effects technology could do what it's doing now, the movie's transformations of Tim Roth, Michael Clarke-Duncan, Paul Giamatti, Helena Bonham Carter and more are stunning, and it's actually shocking that it didn't even wind up getting an Academy Award nomination let alone the prize. At the very least, we'll always remember the film for that.
7. Beneath The Planet Of The Apes
One of the worst things that a sequel can do is not try anything original, but instead just cash in on exactly what made its predecessor successful. Sadly, director Ted Post's Beneath The Planet Of The Apes is a movie excessively guilty of this sin. There is a significant percentage of the film that is dedicated to being essentially a remake, as the story follows yet another astronaut (who actually looks exactly like Charlton Heston) as he crash lands on the Planet of the Apes and is shocked to learn about the primate-dominated culture.
It's really this rehash quality of Beneath The Planet Of The Apes that ultimately ranks it so low within the franchise, and it's too bad, because the back end of the movie really does its part to try and redeem the rest. Normal and safe as most of the film is, it cranks the weirdness factor to 11 when it reveals mutants have been living underground worshiping an atomic rocket. It should also be recognized that Beneath has one of the most shocking, surprising, and underrated endings of any blockbuster, as there are truly few features that can get away with A) blowing up the planet, and B) a narrated line bluntly explaining that said explosion doesn't really matter.
6. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
Following the Tim Burton film, the 21st century wasn't exactly raving about the idea bringing back the Planet of the Apes franchise, but really that just let director Rupert Wyatt, Andy Serkis, and the rest of the team behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes shock the hell out of everyone. Taking full advantage of growing performance capture technology and truly pushing the envelope, the movie wound up being one of the biggest surprises of 2011, and kick-started one of the best trilogies ever.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a true marvel just in the way it managed to transform Andy Serkis for the first time into Caesar, but the movie also just gets a tremendous amount of credit for the bait and switch narrative it managed to pull off. While you went in thinking James Franco would be the real star, it truly proved itself to be Caesar's story -- and though it has a few issues (the "Get your hands off me, you damn dirty ape" line was a bad judgement call), it really is a special film. And yet it's still only the sixth best in the franchise!
5. Escape From The Planet Of The Apes
Going back to what I was saying about the end of Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, there wasn't a tremendous amount of expectation for a follow-up to a movie where the Earth exploded, but still the franchise found a way to continue. In 1971, director Don Taylor brought us Escape From The Planet Of The Apes, and while it entirely flips the "fish out of water" concept that was introduced with the first movie, it still hits on many of the same crucial themes and does what true great sci-fi does best: holds a mirror up to society.
The movie finds Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira (Kim Hunter) and Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo) transported to Earth in the year 1973, and chronicles their story as they go from being off-beat, popular public figures to feared monsters who spell doom for the future of the human race. It's a surprisingly well-woven narrative that finds ways to seriously hit hard -- and while there are moments where it definitely doesn't pull any punches, it also has its own odd sense of humor to it that helps level out its sci-fi weirdness. It's also the film that firmly established Roddy McDowall as the true start of the franchise, and for that we are eternally thankful.
4. Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes
Nearly 40 years before Rise of the Planet of the Apes gave us an alternate version of the ape uprising, director J. Lee Thomson's Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes delivered its own take on the tale, and it is stunning how well the movie has aged. Set in an alternate version of 1991, the movie envisions a world where apes are slave to man and ultimately break their chains - and for being a film made with a bunch of people in furry costumes and jump suits, it's incredible just how emotionally powerful and dark it is.
Roddy McDowall is once again the star, and playing Caesar -- son of Cornelius and Zira from Escape From The Planet of the Apes -- he is given an immensely powerful arc. The bond between Caesar and Armando (Ricardo Montalban) is one of the strongest and most moving ape/human relationships in the entire franchise, and it's amazing to watch the previously repressed and stifled chimpanzee grow to become the leader of a rebellion (one that plays out with remarkable intensity in the third act of the film). Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes is proof that you don't need technology or giant budgets, but instead just a great story to tell a powerful science-fiction tale.
3. War For The Planet Of The Apes
Given that Matt Reeves' War For The Planet Of The Apes is the most recent title in the franchise, we haven't had the chance to reflect on it on the same level as the others, but still we don't hesitate calling it the third best Planet of the Apes movie that we've seen. After all, it's arguably one of the greatest trilogy cappers of all time, and while both serving its key characters and the larger universe in which it exists, it's nothing short of a stunner.
The direction that this series has taken Caesar has been unbelievably epic and beautiful, both in terms of visual representation and narrative journey -- and Andy Serkis has defined performance capture as a true new art form. After watching Caesar go through so much in the first two movie, your heart is fully with him in War For The Planet Of The Apes as he tries to lead his people to salvation, and what he goes through in the process is cinematically shocking, bold and brilliant. Sure, it also has the effect of making you feel as though your heart has been ripped out and punched repeatedly, but that's just the marking of emotionally gifted filmmaking.
2. Planet Of The Apes
The first film in a franchise will always get the extra credit that comes with being the story that started everything -- but Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes also has the benefit of being a legitimate classic. It's without question one of the most iconic movies ever made -- witnessed through the crazy number of various parodies we've seen in the decades since -- but also just a perfectly-told sci-fi thriller that has been damaged by neither time nor the fact that its ending is one of the most famous twists ever conceived.
Arriving right as America's involvement with the Vietnam War was peaking, the film is absolutely genius commentary on the nature of man and our self-destructive tendencies. And while building strong, memorable human and ape characters alike, including Taylor (Charlton Heston), Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira (Kim Hunter) Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) and more, it also weaves a dramatic, fantastical and visually gorgeous tale. Planet of the Apes is a legendary film, and even if they make 20 more in the future, it's easy to guarantee that it will continue to always be seen as one of the greatest.
1. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
Will some consider this blasphemy? Probably -- but it also just doesn't feel right not giving Matt Reeves' first Apes effort the top spot. Taking full advantage of the characters and universe established by Rupert Wyatt in the previous movie and really just running with it, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a perfect film that not only captures everything great thematically in the franchise, but orchestrates it all in a way unlike anything we've ever seen.
It's hard to believe that a movie could make you care about a non-human character so much that you want to actually root against your own species, but that's just the magic of Andy Serkis as Caesar, who not only looks magnificently real from every angle, but also exquisitely sells the pain and pressure of the chimpanzee as he tries to create a home and make peace with those who want him dead (a.k.a. humans). What only makes it more incredible, however, is to watch the opposing arc of Toby Kebbell's Koba -- who you know is wrong, but is also shockingly sympathetic due to the hell he's personally been through. Simply put, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes executes absolutely everything that is amazing about this franchise, which is why we have given it the top spot on this list.