A complete breakdown of the original 'Planet of the Apes' series

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PLANET EARTH — This week marks the release of one of summer’s most anticipated films: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

At the time of this article, reviews for “Dawn” are ridiculously positive, with critics comparing the sequel to “Empire Strikes Back” and Nolan’s “ The Dark Knight.”

Seeing as this film appears to be based loosely on the classic “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” and also because it’s been ages since I’ve written a retro-review, I decided to take a look at the five movies that inspired this weekend’s potential blockbuster.

High level synopsis (almost no spoilers)

Going into this “Apes” marathon, I knew almost nothing about the original series. I believed the five original films took place in the future, which is not the case, and I believed Caesar, the protagonist of the latest films, was part of the entire series, which is also not the case.

The first two films, “Planet of the Apes” and “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” are the Charlton Heston films most people are familiar with — and those are in fact set thousands of years in the future. The third film, “Escape from Planet of the Apes,” uses a loosely explained time travel incident to bring two apes back to the 1970s. There, they are introduced to the human culture in much the same way astronauts were introduced to the ape culture in the first two films.

It’s in “Escape” that we first meet Caesar, who as it turns out, is the offspring of the time-traveling apes. This is the explanation given for his hyper-intelligence and ability to speak, which fans of this latest series will recognize as a major departure from Rupert Wyatt’s “Apes” film.

It’s the last two movies in the series, “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” and “ Battle for the Planet of the Apes” that you’ll see the most parallels to what’s hitting theaters this weekend.

You can scroll to the bottom to see if such a marathon is worth your time, but for those interested, here’s a break-out of my experience with each movie.

Planet of the Apes (1968)

This is the mother of all “Planet of the Apes” movies. Charlton Heston plays an astronaut who finds himself thousands of years in the future, when apes rule the Earth. That was kind of a spoiler if you’ve never heard anything about the series, but really, it’s kind of a “Rosebud” spoiler by now, so I don’t feel especially terrible for throwing that out there.

Regardless, this is the best movie of the original series, and if you can’t make it through this one, there’s no reason to keep going. Just check out “the Simpsons” musical parody, “Stop the Planet of the Apes, I want to get Off!” for a complete recap, and then skip to the 2011 movie.

Seeing this for the first time, I had in my brain from pop-culture references exactly what this movie was, and I was pretty far off. Yes, I knew the ending, but it was actually a pretty interesting ride up until the Statue of Liberty.

There’s no reason you’d need to see this before enjoying “Rise,” but definitely worth your time for a classic film night.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

I have no idea what anyone was thinking when this movie got a green light. Everything about the sequel feels like a bad episode of the original “Star Trek” TV series. That’s not a knock on the original “Star Trek,” just the really bad episodes from the original “Star Trek.”

In “Beneath,” James Franciscus comes to the Planet of the Apes looking for Charlton Heston, though they never explain why. Charlton Heston leaves his mute girlfriend on a horse, and that’s never really explained. And then there are some telepathic mutant guys who worship an atomic bomb.

Unfortunately, as bad as this movie is, you can’t skip it. The ending of this movie impacts the rest of the series in a big way. I will tell you however, if you just skip to the last 15 minutes you’ll be just fine going forward, and not even die-hard “Apes” fans will blame you.

In the end, not worth your time at all, but you’ll want to watch the last 15 minutes before moving on.

Escape from Planet of the Apes (1971)

As mentioned above, this begins as a time-travel movie. Two of the apes from the previous films find their way to the 1970s, and bring with them some disturbing news about the future.

Often considered the second best movie in the series, the first half of “Escape” is a welcome tonal shift for audiences. This movie takes on a lighter, more playful approach as it’s tasked with convincing audiences to now cheer for the apes.

Unfortunately, the man-in-monkey-suit doesn’t play well in a contemporary setting. Thousands of years in the future, maybe monkeys walk more upright and resemble men in rubber masks, but against the real-world background, “Escape” and “Conquest” suffer from how significantly these films have aged.

Sure, there’s something endearing about watching early filmmaking, but you’re still going to find the masks and monkey gloves distracting.

If you can look past that, this is a huge improvement over “Beneath” and a necessary installment if you plan to proceed.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

If “Escape” suffered from man-in-suit issues, “Conquest” completely collapses under them. Not only do the costumes look ridiculous in this chapter, but Caesar’s origin story is pretty convoluted, and not for any good reason.

The 2011 “Rise” covered a lot of the same material we see here, especially concerning Caesar’s first moments as leader of the apes, but “Rise” scaled the story way back. Maybe it was a detriment to my viewing experience that I saw “Rise” before watching “Conquest,” but this really seems like a basic storytelling blunder. “Conquest” has a space virus and dead pets and three generations of ape progression and the need for a talking circus chimp to make its point, where “Rise” just accepts that we already treat animals terribly and asks the question, what if one was smart enough to grasp the extent of our abuse?

In any event, If you’ve come this far in the series, you might as well make yourself a sandwich, gather your knitting or solitaire cards, and muscle your way through this one. It’s not good, but it’s necessary.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

In my opinion, this was the most interesting of the series. I still hold that the original is the better movie, but “Battle” asks a lot of compelling questions while also bringing the story full-circle and offering a reason for the “Apes” marathon you’ve just endured … or enjoyed — really a bit of both I think.

As the name implies, this is a final battle for Caesar and his followers. On a more intimate level, this is a story that asks the ape king what kind of leader he will be for the future. Is this entire story, from Heston to Caesar, just a skipping record? Or, is there hope for man and ape to live as equals? If you think you know the answer just because all stories gravitate to a specific conclusion, watch the first two or three movies in this saga. This is not a series that cares much for how you want things to end.

This last story is definitely worth your time, but that doesn’t mean the series is worth the finale.

Conclusion

While five movies may seem like a lot, note that you can finish this series faster than you would trying to get through the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Am I recommending you do? Definitely not everyone, no.

This series is for the dedicated science fiction fan who can forgive effects and budget if the story is there, and if the premise is compelling. Even in that crowd, there will be some that don’t feel there’s enough material to justify the time.

Still, there is an audience for this original set, even with the current series as good as it is. There are classic sci-fi elements that the current movies aren’t going to touch. Caesar is an interesting character worth considering, which is probably the reason the new films dropped the first three movies and started with him. But the first three movies deserve a look, and there isn’t anyone in the immediate future that will reimagine them, so give Heston a chance. Just remember the even numbered films are terrible, so find a strategy for those and you’ll do just fine.



Travis Poppleton has been covering movie news, film reviews and live events for Deseret News and KSL.com since 2010 and co-hosts the FlicksJunkies podcast. You can contact him at tspoppleton@gmail.com.
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