Although three years have passed, I’m still embarrassed and apologizing to 20th Century-Fox for my strident assumptions regarding the 2011 reboot of my beloved “Planet of the Apes” franchise. I was certain it would all collapse in a pile of hyper-CGI’d fail and made no secret of my prediction.
Was I ever wrong.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” ended up being one of the best films of the year and a more than worthy addition to the franchise.
Tonight my local theatre in is not only premiering director Matt Reeves’ “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” they are programming a double feature with both “Dawn” and “Rise.”
Normally going to the movies feels like work — part of the job. A good job, no question, but not something I would do otherwise. Tonight, I’m stoked and counting down the hours.
Therefore, to pass the time, let’s look back on what will be an 8 film franchise after tonight.
Ranked from best to worst…
1. Planet of the Apes (1968) – The first is still the best. “Dawn” is earning shockingly positive reviews, which means I could pop it into first place tomorrow, but for right now the one that started it all reigns supreme.
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starring The Mighty Charlton Heston as Taylor, repeat viewings never dull the dramatic impact of that moment when Taylor and his astronaut colleagues realize they have landed on a planet where apes are the dominant species and humans are treated like farm animals.
The script co-written by “The Twilight Zone’s” Rod Serling works numerous Big Themes without sacrificing action, adventure or a sense of wonder. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is equally impressive.
No one forgets the first time they saw the movie’s final scene; one of the great cinematic twists in film history.
We are also introduced to Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter as the friendly chimps Cornelius and Zira, who will be crucial to tying the rest of the series together.
2. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) – Directed by journeyman J. Lee Thompson, the fourth in the original franchise is a prequel that takes us back to the year 1991 and creates its own mythology surrounding the rise of the apes. McDowall returns as Caesar (son of Cornelius and Zira), the John Brown of a violent rebellion that teaches the humans a lesson for not recognizing that their ape pets and slaves have achieved self-awareness and therefore humanity.
Thompson does wonders with almost no budget and is aided greatly by Paul Dehn’s (who would write or co-write all 4 sequels) tight script and a great concept that not only pays off, but ingeniously maintains the continuity of its three predecessors.
3. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) - The third entry in the original franchise delivers a brilliant twist (that saved a fortune on the budget) that involves Cornelius (McDowall) and Zira (Hunter) escaping their nuked planet (see: “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”) using Taylor’s drowned spaceship to retrace his route. Naturally, they end up going back in time (1973) and landing here on planet Earth.
Director Don Taylor and screenwriter Dehn not only exploit the concept beautifully, they are thinking way ahead of themselves. The concluding twist might not be as cinematic as the Statue of Liberty, but the way it ties the series together and sets up “Conquest” is why sci-fi fans are sci-fi fans.
4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) – Rupert Wyatt did a fine job directing but the real credit for this creative and commercially successful reboot all goes to the screenwriting team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who stuck with it even when dealing with a wary studio. After the train wreck that was Tim Burton’s commercially successful but widely-hated 2001 remake, 20th Century-Fox was once burnt twice shy.
The script changed everything, though, and for good reason. Everything fans loved about the original was there — the mythology, Big Themes, and a believable story and world.
“Rise” was faithful to what came before but still something all its own that could breathe and expand.
Note: There is a sharp dividing line between the titles listed above and those listed below. The first four films on this list are all superb. The remaining three are not.
5. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) – The second film in the original franchise is stunning to look at (especially in its original widescreen) and kind of beautifully bizarre. But it is dull.
Brent, an insanely fit James Franciscus, is part of a rescue team sent to find the original crew, including Heston’s Taylor. Much plot from the first is recycled until a cult of humans with deadly telepathic abilities and an unhealthy affection for a nuclear bomb shows up.
Cool to look at, a lot of great ideas, but not at all compelling.
6. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) – Set a dozen or so years after “Conquest” (but told in flashback 600 years later), the plot seems awfully similar to the upcoming “Dawn”: post-Apes revolution; humans and apes living in squalor with an uneasy truce; tensions within both camps that eventually result in war…
“Battle” was saddled with almost no budget and a script that feels like a television film. It’s somewhat salvaged by widescreen photography and a production design that works miracles with nothing. Claude Akins, as the gorilla general Aldo, goes above and beyond giving the story dramatic tension.
Overall, though, unless you watch this in widescreen, don’t bother.
This was the final chapter in the original franchise, which was obviously growing tired.
7. Planet of the Apes (2001) – Director Tim Burton’s remake of the 1968 original is not, at least in my humble opinion, as bad as its maligned reputation suggests. Granted, it’s preachy as opposed to thematically-driven (all the difference when a film wants to make a point), the climax is a total letdown, and there’s not a single memorable scene, but, uhm…
Well, okay, maybe it is that bad.
I still watch it, though — you know, cuz Apes.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC