This Friday sees the release of the first “Planet of the Apes” film in a decade, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” starring James Franco. We’ll have our review of the film up on Friday, but to help set the mood, here is a revised and updated version of a feature we first brought you in 2008 on the 40th anniversary of the original “Planet of the Apes.” Below you’ll find a guide to all six previous movies, with synopses, spoilers, continuity errors, and a celebration of all the high-minded social commentary and low-brow schlocky ape masks that make the “Apes” films one of the most satisfying of all sci-fi franchises.
Please note: Most “Planet of the Apes” films have a “shocking” twist that everyone at this point already knows. However, if you have somehow extricated yourself from forty years of pop culture references, by all means be wary of SPOILERS ahead.
“Planet of the Apes” (1968)
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Synopsis: Three Earth astronauts from the 1970s crash land on a mysterious planet in the year 3978 after thousands of years in suspended animation. After days roaming a desert wasteland they stumble on a primitive, non-verbal human civilization and then a society of intelligent apes. Captain Taylor (Charlton Heston) is captured by the apes; within their Ape City, he encounters the kind scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) and the powerful and paranoid Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans). Cornelius and Zira befriend Taylor and help him escape his captivity. Taylor and his chosen mate, Nova (Linda Harrison), ride off into the sunset of the Ape Planet’s “Forbidden Zone”…
Until! …they chance upon one of the most iconic final shots in all of cinema, the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. A crestfallen Taylor realizes he is, in fact, on Earth, one that has apparently been destroyed by an unrevealed cataclysm. Bummer.
Metaphors of the Apes: The elaborate ape makeup, by John Chambers — who was rewarded with an Honorary Academy Award for his impressive efforts — is there to quite literally mask a story about racial prejudice in 1960s America. Obviously the apes enslave the humans (who, in an ironic role reversal, are all white-skinned) but even within the simian society there is friction and persecution; Zira, for instance, notes how Dr. Zaius, an orangutan, looks down his nose at the chimpanzees, who are disallowed from taking part in the ape government.
People Forget: that Charlton Heston’s Taylor is a total dick. Granted, he’s treated poorly by Dr. Zaius and the rest of the apes, but that’s no excuse for the poor manners he frequently displays throughout the film. He flies off the handle with alarming speed; any bit of bad news is liable to send Heston into a sweaty, profane frenzy (“You cut up his brain, you BLOODY BABOON!”). The fact that the embittered Taylor is an astronaut, that great symbol of 1960s optimism and heroism, only enhances his status as a surprisingly dislikable protagonist, one we often side with on the basis of species loyalty alone. That said…
Charlton Heston’s a Friggin’ Badass: You have to love a movie star who isn’t afraid to look like a douche. Taylor isn’t just brutal to his enemies; he’s not even civil to his friends! When his fellow astronaut plants a symbolic flag in the Forbidden Zone, the cynical Taylor — who took this doomed mission to try to find something in the universe “better than man” after becoming disillusioned with society — mockingly laughs at the gesture. I’m talking cackling-like-a-madman laughter. Later, when Cornelius tells him to stop holding Dr. Zaius at gunpoint, the grumpy human shoves him aside and yells “Shut up!” (despite the fact that Cornelius has risked his own freedom to give Taylor his). Cornelius, you didn’t get the memo: nobody messes with Chuck Heston when he’s got a rifle in his hands.
After More Than 40 Years, It’s Easy To Seem Dated: Cornelius and Zira’s nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner) gets to spout all sorts of hilarious youth movement slogans, as if Ape City had its very own Haight-Ashbury. “How are you feeling?” Taylor asks him after the final battle. “Disillusioned!” he replies, “You can’t trust the older generation!” The racial component of the film still works; the hippie ape (“ape-ie”?), not so much.
Continuity Boo-Boos: As author Eric Greene observes in his text commentary track on the “Apes” DVD, Taylor should have been clued in to the fact that he’s on Earth well before he spots what’s left of Lady Liberty. Why else would the apes speak English?
“Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970)
Directed by Ted Post
Synopsis: After Taylor disappears into a bad special effect in the Forbidden Zone, another astronaut from his time conveniently crash lands on the Planet of the Apes looking for him. Our new hero Brent (James Franciscus) hooks up with Nova and proceeds to ape Taylor’s activities from the first “PoTA” so closely, you’d swear he was working from a checklist. He rides around on horseback, gets captured and brought to Ape City, receives help from Zira and Cornelius (now played by David Watson), loses his clothes, walks around in a loincloth, receives a bullet wound that requires a bandage, and realizes that he’s on a royally effed-up future version of Earth run by talking gorillas. Later, Brent and Nova find the remnants of New York City in the Forbidden Zone, and along with them, a race of telepathic mutants who worship a massive nuclear weapon called the Doomsday Bomb. Brent and Nova reunite with Taylor and all three escape just as the ape army, led by Dr. Zaius and General Ursus (James Gregory), attack the mutants’ lair…
Until! …the apes kill Nova and Brent and mortally wound Taylor. After Dr. Zaius refuses to help him, Taylor activates the Doomsday Bomb and destroys the entire world out of spite. Good to see Taylor hasn’t mellowed since the last “Apes!” After the screen fades to white, a somber narration informs us that Earth, “a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.” And you thought “The Empire Strikes Back” was a depressing sequel.
Metaphors of the Apes: “Beneath” largely discards the previous film’s racial component and instead depicts a twisted version of religious fanaticism. Though the apes’ religion was discussed in the first picture, here it is given more screen time, and paired with the mutants and their intensely creepy bomb-based religion. In a truly disturbing sequence, Brent and Nova are forced to endure a mutant worship service (“May the blessing of the bomb almighty, and the fellowship of the holy fallout descend on us all!”). At the heights of the scene’s delirium, five mutants peel off their faces, revealing the fact that they all look like Darth Vader without his mask on, and begin to sing in harmony to their “almighty and everlasting bomb.” To this point, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” is a harmless rehash of its predecessor. That chilling scene portends just how dark the ending will get.
People Forget: how much James Franciscus looks like Charlton Heston. The uncanny resemblance is almost certainly the reason the mediocre actor — whose convulsions during his mental interrogation by the mutants is downright Shatnerian — landed the role.
After 40 Years, It’s Easy To Seem Dated: “Beneath” marks the series’ slow backslide into low-budget hell, and it already shows in the more elaborate sequences, where extras no longer wear the full compliment of John Chambers’ makeup and instead try to sneak by with cheap-looking ape masks. If you freeze-frame the scene where Ursus delivers his speech to the ape council, you can have a lot of fun spotting the bad applications. It’s sort of like trying to find a guy in a crowd with a bad toupee.
Continuity Boo-Boos: Ooh boy, there are a lot of them. First, the entire notion that the government would send a rescue mission to find a ship that’s been tossed thousands of years into the future is totally preposterous. Even if Brent found Taylor, what would he do with him? Plus, Brent’s ship tells him he’s landed in the year 3955, 23 years before Taylor! Most amusingly, Brent knows to follow Nova because she’s wearing Taylor’s dog tags. The only problem is Taylor doesn’t wear dog tags in the first movie and in the flashback scene conveniently added to explain their existence he nonchalantly pulls them out of his loincloth. So, what, his loincloth has pockets?
Charlton Heston’s a Friggin’ Badass: Heston didn’t want to return for another “Apes” and he only agreed on the condition that his part was limited to about fifteen minutes of screen time and he got to die so he wouldn’t be asked to come back again. But apparently that wasn’t assurance enough for Heston that Fox wouldn’t drag him back if they developed another sequel. So what does he do? He kills the entire planet along with his character. “It’s DOOMSDAY! The END of the WORLD!” he sneers at Zaius in a bat-shit crazed whisper. His final words as Taylor: “Bloody bastard!” You’d think total nuclear annihilation would prove the end of any franchise, but not even Heston could kill this series.
“Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (1971)
Directed by Don Taylor
Synopsis: The spaceship formerly piloted by Taylor crash lands on the Pacific Coast in the United States circa 1973 (the near future, as far as the film is concerned). Its three passengers are Cornelius (Roddy McDowall, back after a one film break) and Zira (Kim Hunter, in her last “Apes” movie) from the first two “Apes” along with a new character, Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo, of all people, for a paltry 10 minutes before his character is offed by an ornery gorilla). They’ve bounced back through time by the shockwave left after the earth’s destruction in the previous film. Once the apes let it slip that they can speak, they become media darlings; once they let it slip that they’re from a future where apes subjugate humans, they become pariahs, particularly after Zira divulges the fact that she’s also pregnant. Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) targets the apes for death, tracks them across Southern California, and eventually kills them and their baby in cold blood on an abandoned oil tanker, eliminating the threat they pose to humanity…
Until! …we discover that Cornelius and Zira secretly swapped their baby with that of a circus chimp. Their incredibly brilliant offspring lives on in the care of the benevolent Armando (Ricardo Montalban), guaranteeing he will lead the ape race into a bright future full of many sequels. No one but me seems upset that some poor innocent baby chimp died as part of a ruse to further the talking ape bloodline.
Metaphors of the Apes: Cornelius and Zira’s rise and fall is a rather prescient take on the chew-you-up-spit-you-out world of modern celebrity culture. Their brief flirtation with fame is filled with hilarious scenes that exist only to make fun of dumb rich people — at the apex of their popularity, the apes throw a party at their suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where they get bombed on wine (or “grape juice plus,” as its described to Zira) and watch as two adults bounce around on an enormous seesaw. Also, Zira’s Rodeo Drive outfit makes her resemble Little Red Riding Hood, which suggests the fact that her seemingly friendly exterior masks the danger she poses to the human race.
People Forget: That this movie is actually kind of smart. Even the villain, Dr. Hasslein, doesn’t take his actions lightly — when debating what to do about Cornelius and Zira, he has a series of conversations with the President of the United States (William Windom) about the morality of taking a life not on the basis of what it has done in the past, but what it might do in the future. Most of the “Apes” movies are dominated by dogmatic antagonists who gives the filmmakers the chance to rail against fundamentalism and fanaticism. Hasslein, in contrast, is wracked by doubt and his actions, if heinous, are also logical. “How many futures are there?” he asks. “Which future has God, if there is a God, chosen for man’s destiny? If I urge the destruction of these two Apes, am I defying God’s will or obeying it? Am I his enemy of his instrument?” Pretty heady stuff for a movie about talking chimps that’s supposedly aimed at children.
Work Within Your Means: After having to deploy so many cheap looking ape masks in the crowd scenes of “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” the producers wised up. There were hundreds of apes in each of the last two movies, “Escape” contains exactly three, and one of them doesn’t even make it out of the first act. Setting the film in the near future had to be a budget-conscious decision, too — by placing the movie just two years after its release, they explained away the fact that NASA was a ways off from making a spaceship that resembled Taylor’s without having to make Los Angeles look futuristic in any way.
The Charles Bronson Memorial “Death Wish” Award Goes To: Montalban’s Armando, who shields the two apes and later hides their baby out of what could only be described as a fetishistic love for simians. By way of explaining his actions (which, again, will either directly or indirectly result in millions of deaths, including his own) he says to Zira, “I did it because I like chimpanzees… I did it because I hate those who try to alter destiny, which is the unalterable will of God. And if it is man’s destiny to one day be dominated, then oh, please God, let him be dominated by one such as you.” Methinks Armando’s been dipping into the grape juice plus.
Continuity Boo-Boos: The entire story sets up one of those “Terminator” paradoxes where the future creates itself by venturing into the past and jumpstarting the events that lead to apocalypse. Cornelius and Zira’s child, Milo, who becomes the protagonist of the next two movies, eventually frees the apes from their slavery and later leads them in a war against the mutated remains of humanity. In short, he gives birth to the planet of the apes that, in turn, gives birth to him. But if Cornelius and Zira create the talking apes, how did the talking apes appear before Cornelius and Zira traveled back through time to create them? File all of this under “Things You’re Really Not Supposed to Think About While Watching ‘Escape From the Planet of the Apes.'”
“Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972)
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Synopsis: In 1983, a virus brought back from space by astronauts (who are always causing trouble in this series) kills every dog and cat on Earth. Apes become the pets of choice, but they prove themselves so smart and adaptable they’re soon turned into slaves instead. Now, 18 years after the events of “Escape,” America has turned into a fascist state and apes are trained for their servitude (i.e. tortured) at a facility called “Ape Management.” Armando is arrested, so Cornelius and Zira’s son Caesar (McDowall) bunks up with the ape slaves. After seeing the cruel conditions for himself, he teaches his brothers the art of guerilla warfare (ho ho!) and leads them in a bloody rebellion that threatens to destroy civilization…
Until! …Fox ordered a reshoot to provide a happier ending after test audiences were understandably unsettled by an finale that glorifies the violent subjugation of humanity. Suddenly, Caesar takes pity on his former masters and promises (in a speech eerily reminiscent of Armando’s ape pickup lines from “Escape”) that “if it is man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion and understanding!” And here I thought apes were agnostic.
Metaphors of the Apes: After a couple movies pussyfooting around its staple imagery, “Conquest” plays the race card for all its worth. The sequence where the apes are processed evokes shades of the Royal African Company and throughout the film, the emphasis is on reminding audiences that it is never smart to treat others inhumanely because you never know when the shoe will be on the other paw. The ending is made particularly poignant by the presence of a black actor (Hari Rhodes) in the role of MacDonald, the kind human sympathetic to the apes’ plight who tries to negotiate a truce. “You, above everyone else, should understand,” Caesar tells MacDonald when he explains his plans for a revolution.
Work Within Your Means: With budgets sinking lower than ever before, the filmmakers faced an uphill battle creating the world of 1991. Their solution? Shoot the entire movie in Century City and on the “futuristic” campus of University of California, Irvine then hope no one notice the entire movie takes place within a radius of a few square blocks. We don’t get a look at what a car or an airplane might look like in 1991, but the art department provide a few tantalizing glimpses of the shape of things to come. To wit:
In 1991… telephones have NO cords!
In 1991… cigarettes are green!!
In 1991… people wear white socks with dress shoes!!!
In 1991… all restaurants cook their food hibachi-style!!!!
In 1991… escalators will continue to work much as they do in 1972!!!!!
People Forget: How insane the movie’s ending is, even with the studio-mandated softening. It’s one thing root for the subjugated apes — that’s easy, since all the humans except MacDonald and Armando are bottomless assholes — and it’s quite another to cheer as Los Angeles burns to the ground. My favorite moment comes when the dean of UC Irvine (also known as Governor Breck), played by Don Murray, gives an overwrought speech designed to give the uprising a sense of scope that the budget cannot provide. As if to justify why he’s so freaked out about one group of monkeys with Molotov cocktails, he bellows, “If we lose this battle it’ll be the end of the world AS WE KNOW IT! We will have PROVEN ourselves INFERIOR! THIS will be the END of human civiliZATION and the world will belong to a PLANET of APES!” Damn, man. It’s just a couple hundred apes with knives. Unclench.
The Charles Bronson Memorial “Death Wish” Award Goes To: MacDonald, who goes way beyond compassion for an oppressed race (or species) into cuckoo territory with his repeated attempts to help destroy society. He goes from fighting for the humane treatment of apes to helping them bash his boss’s head in. Then again, maybe he doesn’t have a death wish; maybe he just wants a new job.
Continuity Boo-Boos: In “Escape from Planet of the Apes,” Cornelius and Zira name their baby Milo. Armando is fully aware of this. He’s there when they name the kid; it’s right before he tries to get in Zira’s housedress. Yet at the start of “Conquest,” Milo’s no longer Milo; he’s Caesar. Did Armando just ignore the ape’s decision and name the thing what he preferred? Hardly the way to honor the memory of the ape love of your life, Armie!
“Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973)
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Synopsis: Some indeterminate time after the events of 1972’s “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” and the ensuing nuclear war (possibly 12 or 27 years, depending on which character’s talking), the remnants of ape and human societies maintain an uneasy peace. In the wake of the last film’s primate revolution, the slave/master roles have been reversed: The apes, led by Caesar (Roddy McDowell, returning to his second “Apes” role for a second time) are in charge, and men are their servants. After a human named MacDonald (Austin Stoker) tells Caesar of recordings of his parents buried somewhere in the ruins of the Forbidden Zone, they travel there, only to discover the first wisps of the mutated, bomb-worshiping cult that figured prominently in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” Their incursion into the mutants’ territory sparks another battle between the armies of man and beast that threatens to end 12 (or maybe 27) years of interspecies peace.
Until! …well, nothing really. The titular “Battle” happens, Caesar and MacDonald agree to live together as equals, and John Huston appears as an orangutan named “The Lawgiver” to reinforce the film’s message of unity. The closest thing to a twist is the final image, a statue of Caesar that sheds a single tear as the credits role. But the only thing really shocking about that is the pretension that’s on display. The statue, it’s crying! Because… well, to be perfectly frank, we’re not entirely sure why it’s crying. But it is! And that means beneath the bad makeup, bad acting and the bad special effects, this cash-grabbing fourth installment is important, dammit!
Metaphors of the Apes: At this point, the series had basically run out of ideas, and that extends to its subtext as well, which this go around is just a rehash of the same old, same old. Fine sentiments, but they’ve been fine sentiments for four movies now. I know you’re trying your hardest, “Planet of the Apes” movies, but if humanity hasn’t realized that warmongering and racism are bad by this point, I’m not sure Roddy McDowell’s going to sway them now.
People Forget: That John Landis co-stars in “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.” You heard right — “Animal House” director John Landis shows up in the credits of “Battle.” Not that he appears prominently in the film, mind you — he plays “Jake’s Friend” and having just watched the film for a second time, I still have no idea who that is.
Work Within Your Means: As each “Apes” received a smaller budget, each struggled with its sense of scale. They’re called “Planet of the Apes,” and with each installment, the percentage of said planet we get to see shrinks significantly. By this, the fifth and final installment, we’re limited to an “Ape City” — basically a third-rate Ewok Village — and a underground mutant community lit so dimly that it could have realistically been filmed on the set of “All in the Family” during the show’s summer hiatus and no one would have noticed. As for the so-called armies of man and beast, they may be the first armies in history that could be comfortably outnumbered by the members of a professional basketball team. Caesar conquered the world, fellas. He’s not going to be intimidated by eight guys in a beat-up old school bus. Seriously. They drive on Ape City in a big yellow bus.
The Don Murray Award For Scenery Chewing Goes to: Claude Akins as the evil ape General Aldo. In his acceptance speech, Akins would no doubt thank his screenwriters, John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington, without whom this recognition would not be possible. After all, it is they who gave his laughably simplistic character dialogue like “We want GUNS! GUNS are POWER!” And I know you’re trying to convince us you’re a gorilla, Claude, but at least half those grunts are unnecessary.
Continuity Boo-Boos: This fairly unremarkable picture distinguishes itself in just one category: the number of things about it that don’t make a lick of sense. As I mentioned earlier, the exact amount of time between “Conquest of” and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” is incredibly vague. The gruesome Governor Kolp (Severn Darden) mentions an armistice that’s lasted 12 years; the guard at Caesar’s armory claims to have worked the job in the same ramshackle hut for 27 years. The weird thing is that, either way, every ape in the entire world has learned to talk in the course of a single generation. It’s an extraordinary feat when you think about it — in tens of thousands of years, apes have collectively spoken nothing. In 12 (or 27) years, Caesar has taught all of them while simultaneously razing the earth to the ground. That is some hellacious multitasking.
(On a side note, how come all the dusty, broken electronics on the Planet of the Apes all still work? And where is all the electricity coming from?)
“Planet of the Apes” (2001)
Directed by Tim Burton
Synopsis: In the year 2029, on a space station full of astronauts and astroapes, Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) trains a chimp named Pericles to pilot a little rocket ship. When a freak electromagnetic storm appears, Pericles is sent against Leo’s orders to investigate. Pericles’ pod vanishes, so Leo hops in another pod and gets sucked into the storm too. He’s tossed 1000 years into the future and crashes on a nearby planet where he’s shocked to discover a society where apes reign supreme and men are kept as slaves and pets. He’s captured, but escapes with the help of a sympathetic chimp named Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) and later, they’re chased across the planet by the brutal General Thade (Tim Roth). In the middle of a battle between Leo’s allies and Thade’s army, Pericles lands in his pod. Leo takes it and heads back into an electromagnetic storm, bound for his own time back on Earth…
Until! …he crash lands once again, this time on a planet that looks like Earth and has a city that looks like Washington D.C., only the Lincoln Memorial is now a monument to General Thade. As Leo tries to figure out what the hell that means, a bunch of ape policemen and ape soldiers pull up in their ape cars and ape tanks and ape arrest him (ape). On his DVD commentary for the film, director Tim Burton says that the notorious “Ape Lincoln” image was intended as a cliffhanger designed to facilitate additional movies, and declines to explain further for fear of undercutting the dramatic impact of future sequels. It’s a convenient excuse, anyway; Burton’s intense stammering hints at a different truth (Sample commentary: “To me, I wouldn’t have taken it further. I wouldn’t have explained any more even — whatever — if I could of, or — whatever…”). The most likely explanation of the Ape Lincoln statue? Pretty simple, actually; Leo leaves Thade trapped but still alive on the Planet of the Apes. So Thade must have found some working remnant of Leo’s technology amongst the wreckage of his ship and used it to go to Earth at some point before 2029 and reshape it in his image. As for those proposed sequels, they seem to have vanished, like an astronaut sent into an electromagnetic storm.
Metaphors of the Apes: The cornerstones of “Apes” iconography — racial inequality, religious fundamentalism, unchecked militarism — are all present, but they’re significantly tamped down in the interest of making an uninspired chase picture. Much of that has to do with Wahlberg and his (non-) character Leo, who, unlike nearly all the protagonists in the original “Apes” series, has absolutely no opinion about any of the issues the films traditionally explore. Where Taylor left Earth to escape mankind’s faults (only to find himself doomed by them once more), Leo wound up on this Planet of the Apes (one that is most certainly not our own) mostly because he cared a little too much about a monkey. Once he’s there, all he wants to do is go home. He’s not a scientist or an explorer or a philosopher. The role calls for Wahlberg to do nothing but look determined in the elegantly tattered remains of the impossibly chic space suit. Evidently at some point before 2029, G-Star purchases the exclusive rights to design all of NASA’s uniforms.
People Forget: That this movie’s storyline is actually closer to the one in the original novel by French author Pierre Boulle. There, as in Burton’s version, a human has an adventure on an alien world with dominant apes, and returns to Earth only to discover that it, too, is now ruled by a bunch of talking gorillas. Burton’s sin isn’t a lack of faithfulness to his source; it’s one of boring his audience.
The Don Murray Award For Scenery Chewing Goes to: Roth as General Thade. His makeup, designed by Rick Baker, may be far more complex, but the character is just as simplistic as Aldo, another utterly one-dimensional tyrant. And I know you’re trying to convince us you’re a chimpanzee, Tim, but at least two-thirds of those snarls and seven-eighths of those nostril flares are unnecessary.
After Ten Years It’s Easy to Seem Dated: This “Apes” was made at the height of Hollywood’s love affair with wirework stunts and boy, does it ever show. Whenever Thade smacks someone upside their heads, they go careening away as if they’ve been shot out of a cannon. That bad wire-fu effect — where the action says someone is being pushed, but the body language of the person flying through the air says they’re being pulled by digitally erased cabling — permeates (and pretty much ruins) every major action sequence.
Continuity Boo-Boos: The humans in this “Planet of the Apes” can still speak, which makes their enslavement tough to swallow. If they’ve kept their intelligence, what’s led to humanity’s fall? Kris Kristofferson should have no problem showing these apes who’s the boss. Such is the magic of these films: I have no problem accepting talking apes on an alien world, but the fact that the humans are wearing banana leaves bothers me.