Planet of the Apes (1968) – Three astronauts—George Taylor (Charlton Heston), Landon (Robert Gunner), and Dodge (Jeff Burton)—wake up two thousand years later on a faraway planet. They soon discover it populated by highly intelligent apes, who have created their own laws and religion. Suffering from a throat injury, Taylor tries to communicate with two chimpanzees—Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter). They both take a vast interest in him. The only humans on the planet are unable to speak–Taylor takes a liking for the mute Nova (Linda Harrison)—and used for sport. Taylor eventually respects the two apes. (“Take your stinkin’ paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” he sneers at one point when he is captured by gorillas).
Planet of the Apes is a milestone in science-fiction cinema. It’s an allegory of American slavery (almost ironic, in a way) and it tackles the questions of religion and science. Since its release in 1968, the movie stills holds up with its impressive sets and terrific ape costumes and make-up. The performances—led by Heston—are one-of-a-kind. A lot of people who haven’t seen the movie yet might be aware of the film’s iconic twist ending. It’s on the DVD cover, for crying out loud!
One of the best movies ever made!
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) – This is where everything gets real bizarre.
Astronaut Brent (James Franciscus) is on a rescue mission to find Taylor on the planet while searching for “his destiny”. In perhaps the most laughable green screen shot in existence, Taylor goes missing through the boulders. Brent finds Nova and encounters both Cornelius and Zira, who warns him about talking to other apes, or else he’ll get in trouble. Nova takes Brent underground until they hear something humming. It’s actually a group of mutants who communicate telepathically.
When I first watched this after seeing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I found it to be a decent escape. Rewatching it today, it’s not as good as I remembered. Franciscus makes for a weak protagonist, and it’s obvious Charlton Heston didn’t want to take part in the sequel at all. There also should have been more of a backstory about how the telekinetic mutants lived underground all this time, and wanting to use a doomsday bomb. Beneath might be bad, but it is far from the worst movie in the franchise.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) – Now—this is more like it!
Cornelius and Zira have escaped from their planet mere minutes before it got destroyed. Along with Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo), they end up going back in time in present-day Los Angeles. Soon, they are brought to the zoo’s infirmary to be looked upon by doctors Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy) and Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman). Right away, the doctor as well as the public discover the apes are intelligent and understand human speech. They become celebrities. However, problems begin to arise when the public asks where the two apes are from and Zira eventually getting pregnant.
Escape has what the rest of the sequels lack: humor and heart. I had no idea Frank Capra’s son was one of the producers of this movie. It certainly captures the charm reminiscent to Capra’s films. While the audience gets to learn about the apes’ home planet, we also learn how possible time travel is. There is a scene where Cornelius and Zira are brought before the Commission, and explain how humans are treated in their world. “Where we come from, apes talk. Humans are dumb,” Cornelius says to a shocked crowd. Later on, a doctor talks about the possibility of time travel using a painting of a painter painting a landscape as an example.
The movie is not without its flaws, it does have a suspenseful climax and great performances. Good stuff!
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) – The year is 1991. The apes have taken over the Earth’s population. After a virus that has killed many cats and dogs, the humans use the apes as pets. As the apes get older, they are used more as slaves. Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, does not like this one bit. He leads a rebellion with his fellow apes against mankind.
You have to give Roddy McDowall credit for playing the father and the son in the franchise. He’s the highlight of not only this movie, but the entire franchise. Conquest has a fascinating input of the Earth’s future; making modern ape slavery the subject of controversy. However, the results are a bit underwhelming. The music score is nothing compared to Jerry Goldsmith’s scores in the previous films (his score for Escape is perhaps my favorite). The tone feels as dry as the Sahara desert. The rebellious climax can be suspenseful and a ton of fun to watch, some of the lighting can be dark at times. Caesar’s final speech never fails to send shivers down my spine.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) – Caesar has officially ruled the Earth. His job is to keep peace between his fellow apes and the surviving humans. However, gorilla General Aldo (Claude Akins) begs to differ about keeping humans on their planet. As a group of humans want to gain back their once-beloved civilization, this results in an “epic” battle between the apes and humans.
Is it just me, or have the ape costumes gotten sillier in each sequel? Nothing comes closer than this atrocious sequel. With the exception of the beginning and end, almost every shot looks so cheaply-made (not to mention the movie having a budget of about $2 million). The narrative is a straight-up mess. I mean…how do the modern apes make that quick transition from being enslaved to ruthless leaders?
The title battle is just as embarrassing as it is boring. There is one point in which the same shot of a tree house burning down is used twice. Even Roddy McDowall cannot save this movie from being an absolute disaster. Easily the worst in the franchise.