A couple of months ago, I noticed — as a freelance writer tends to when considering future pitch ideas — that not one, but two of the most seminal science fiction films celebrate their 50th anniversary not just this year, but on the same day. One of those films, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is among my favorite films ever; the other, Planet of the Apes, is a film that I knew about — how could I not? — but had never seen. In fact, although I'd seen the Tim Burton remake as well as the first of the three new films from the past decade, I'd seen none of the original five Planet of the Apes films.
That is, until now.
Here, if you dare, is my Binge Blog of all five original Apes movies. It's… quite an adventure.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Not having seen this before, but knowing a handful of the big moments or lines of dialogue, I genuinely wonder how much this movie can work after 50 years of hype. Fingers crossed!
01:00: The first lines of dialogue, which set up the notion that NASA astronauts have traveled through seven centuries of time, are spoken by Charlton Heston, in full space-suit regalia, puffing a cigarette. That's hilarious.
02:18: Hearing Heston pontificate about the problems of the planet, man fighting against man and starvation being a problem worldwide, is... interesting to reconcile with his public figure in his later years as a gun-toting factotum of the NRA.
03:31: The pre-credits sequence really doesn't shy away from what was on the mind of co-screenwriter Rod Serling: Taylor (Heston's character) is clearly going to represent his cynicism about the current state of the world, at least circa 1968.
06:57: It's convenient that, during an indeterminate amount of hyper-sleep, Taylor grew a beard that his hibernation pod kept well-groomed.
11:30: It's a daring choice for this film to have its protagonist be so proudly anti-Earth. When Taylor learns that their ship is sinking and says "We're here to stay," he does so with more than a hint of pleasure.
12:06: "We weren't programmed in the water." As the astronauts debate when and where they are — we're privy to the time code on the ship saying it's the year 3978 — I want to note something. I, unlike these characters, am aware of the impending twist ending: that they're still on Earth, just in the future. While I get that the trio of astronauts expected to be on a different planet, it's odd that they don't almost instantly note that this planet looks an awful lot like their home, somewhere in the Southwest, like Monument Valley.
14:30: "It's a fact, Landon. Buy it. You'll sleep better." Taylor seems like a real super-chill dude to hang out with.
25:26: As the astronauts inspect some spooky-looking scarecrows, I want to note that I'm surprised that this movie takes so long to get to the... y'know, apes.
30:02: Still no apes! But "at least [the primitive humans] haven't tried to bite" Taylor and his buddies, although they stole the astronaut trio's clothes.
32:01: Convenient how, two thousand years in the future, the dominant party still uses rifles. And yes, they're apes! (Which feels a bit obvious to the viewer, considering the title of this movie. But that's just me.)
38:00: It's fascinating to me that most of the costuming and makeup of the actors playing the apes is still pretty decent after 50 years. Except for the moving mouths. I get that it might have been too hard or just too weird to have the apes' lips move the way that humans' lips do, but the effect here is the equivalent of watching the Muppets flap their felt mouths.
39:23: "You know what they say, human see, human do." The humor in this movie does not stand up to the test of time.
43:25: I definitely did not expect to see two of the apes, Zira and Cornelius, kiss. Or, more accurately, poke their mouths at each other.
50:45: I know that there are actors underneath the makeup, but watching the apes speak is like watching the Audio-Animatronic characters in Disney's Country Bear Jamboree. It's kind of unavoidably goofy.
54:12: Taylor has to avoid being castrated now, and man, things have escalated quickly.
1:00:00: I kind of liked the part where Charlton Heston didn't speak for 20 minutes or so... "Lots of lovemaking, but not a lot of love." See what I mean? When he wasn't talking, the movie was better off.
1:15:10: Director Franklin Schaffner (who would go on to direct Patton) and the script are laying it on thick here, as we see a shot of the three apes on the Assembly, one with its hands over its eyes, the next with its hands over its mouth, the last one with its hands over its ears. See no evil, speak no... well, you get the point.
1:19:34: So much of the dramatic heft of this film requires me to look past the inherent goofiness of people dressed up as apes. And I can't quite get there.
1:21:40: "Stop making speeches," orders one ape to another, and brother, I co-sign that firmly.
1:25:00: "We don't need any guns!" "Good, I want one anyway." Ah, now there's the Charlton Heston I know.
1:27:03: Taylor, with the help of Zira and Cornelius, is heading to the Forbidden Zone, which really means he's heading back the way he arrived, having just passed the scarecrows. I know the final twist, and I really hope the suggestion isn't that if Taylor and his fellow astronauts had gone just a few feet in the other direction, they'd have spotted the Statue of Liberty. That might be a bit too dumb for my tastes.
1:30:45: "Beards? I don't go in for fads." What kind of fads do apes indulge in? That's a story I'd like to see. Some Beach Blanket Bingo-style teenybopper movie, but with apes.
1:33:45: I've only seen the Tim Burton remake with Mark Wahlberg once in theaters, but I don't remember the climax of that movie being relatively low-key, like this one. At this point, with less than 20 minutes left, Dr. Zaius is going into the Forbidden Zone to placate Taylor, but there's nothing earth-shattering at stake. I can't imagine how low-key it must have felt to first-time viewers who didn't know where the ending would lead.
1:39:00: We now have what amounts to a pretty dull gunfight between Taylor and the apes, after he and Dr. Zaius argue over a few human things, including a child's doll whose voicebox still works centuries later. Let's spend more time on that doll and its resilience, less on gunplay.
1:44:40: Considering the twist to come, this feels... very low-key. And Charlton Heston just said "Remember, never trust anyone over 30." To an ape.
1:45:15: He just kissed Zira on the mouth. An actual kiss, too. Okay then.
1:45:40: "I'm pretty handy with this," Heston says in reference to a rifle. Yeah, we know, dude.
1:46:30: How does Dr. Zaius know about what humans did to the Forbidden Zone? I realize he's teasing Taylor with the revelation of the Statue of Liberty, but how does he know? He doesn't mention the so-called Sacred Scrolls or anything. Just a lot of hinting.
1:50:00: The bleakness of this ending fits with the rest of the very cynical take on humanity. And the way that Schaffner slowly pans across the top of the crown of the Statue of Liberty as the beginning of the reveal is very well done. But knowing this was going to be the twist robs it of its potency. When you know the end of the journey (at least for this movie), in this case, it doesn't have the same gut-wrenching heft.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
Pre-screening note: I have basically no idea what to expect from this movie. Unlike the original, I don't know anything about who's in this, any surprises, etc.
01:00: This movie begins with the final scene of the first movie because, of course, who could remember how that movie ends?
03:15: The opening credits are playing against the reveal of the Statue of Liberty, and perhaps the most baffling thing is this: I'm pretty sure they reshot the stuff with Heston, because his hair looks a little longer. This feels totally unnecessary.
07:40: We are now following another American astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus), who has apparently tried to track down Taylor by following his trajectory. He seems to have been primarily cast because he looks... kind of like Charlton Heston.
08:40: He's just buried his mission's captain, who landed on Earth, circa 3955, both blinded and horrified that he had lost "everyone I ever knew." So now it's just Mr. Cheerful, Brent.
10:40: Brent doesn't have to wait for long to meet someone: Nova rides up on a horse, sans Taylor.
12:20: We're now seeing a brief flashback of Nova and Taylor after the end of the first film, and you know, for a guy who just found out he's on his own planet, centuries in the future after humans killed themselves, he seems pretty chill.
13:25: Taylor and Nova have ridden up against a literal wall of flame and nasty-looking lightning bolts. Odd how this movie, the sequel to a well-liked and successful sci-fi film, has a laughably low effects budget. Seems like that would be kind of important!
17:52: "Every good soldier knows that the only good thing is power! Naked, merciless force!" I take it from this subtle dialogue that the ape saying these words is a bad guy.
23:00: General Ursus — the "naked, merciless force" ape — and Dr. Zaius are taking a schvitz together. The sentences that you type in the year 2018.
27:23: Brent has met up with Zira and Cornelius, but there's a weird lack of suspense here. Taylor just...vanished, and the only person who knows that can't actually tell anyone. So we're just watching a lot of desperate running around with very little oomph.
28:30: "As Minister of Science, it is my duty to find out if another form of life exists!" Zaius seemed pretty uninterested in that in the first film. Strange how he's changed his mind.
29:30: Cornelius promises to hit Zira if she refuses to stop fighting for her principles, which is very charming. (I realize he's saying this to make sure Zaius ignores the new human being, but still.)
43:00: Brent and Nova have stumbled upon the ruins of Queensboro Plaza inside a cave. It really just feels like the first half of this movie is an elongated version of the last five minutes of the first film.
53:40: Brent and Nova are walking by the ruins of Radio City Music Hall, and y'know, less was more in the first film in terms of the reveal of New York City.
58:35: Brent is having a telepathic conversation with some mysterious human in the hollowed-out remains of St. Patrick's Cathedral, with a massive bomb nearby. Boy, it sure would be helpful if we heard both sides of that conversation, not just Brent's. Strange choice.
1:00:45: Brent is now talking to a series of people telepathically. Why are we only hearing one side of this conversation?
1:02:50: "We should speak aloud." YES. Yes, you should. The whole damn time, yes.
1:07:00: Brent, I believe, just kissed Nova to death. Or, to unconsciousness. This movie is both extremely silly and extremely self-important. Kind of impressive, while also not being very enjoyable.
1:08:12: The apes have descended upon the Forbidden Zone because this is a movie about apes. Even if they've been absent for a good third of the movie.
1:14:00: It is very warped and disturbing to watch humans swear fealty to an atomic bomb. Yet, something about this, as well as the impending showdown between humans and apes, is very dull and flat. Maybe it's that I know there are three other movies in the series? So there's a limited amount of suspense, with that added context. Maybe.
1:16:02: Well, that's gross. The reveal of the humans underneath the planet all essentially wearing... human masks to hide their skin having been mutated and destroyed. (Though, you could ask why they have the masks to begin with.) But it's gross.
1:20:00: Who am I even rooting for to win this fight?
1:22:14: Nova speaking for the first time has ended the fight, and lucky for us, Taylor and Brent both kill a black guy, one of the telepaths. Wonderful.
1:23:38: "Didn't you see a series number?" Taylor asks Brent this regarding the atomic bomb being worshiped. Kids, remember, when you see a bomb, look for the series number. It might be out of date!
1:26:45: What was the whole point of having Cornelius and Zira in this movie at all? Barring a late-stage surprise, their last appearance was roughly an hour ago. This is mostly about Dr. Zaius and Ursus waging war against the humans.
1:27:35: Nova has just been shot and is dead, thus emphasizing exactly how pointless her character is in both films. What a waste.
1:33:30: Boy, the ending of this movie is... baffling. First, are we meant to think that Taylor... wanted to end the world? Why? Sure seemed like the whole point of him and Brent going back was to fight off the apes. And the narration from Paul Frees (a Disney favorite) feels like a self-serious version of Douglas Adams dubbing Earth "mostly harmless" in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
1:34:00: Also, super-fun that the African American telepath is credited as "Negro" in the end credits. Super, super fun. Like this movie. Which was super, super, SUPER fun.
Very curious to see how there are three more of these movies when this one ends with the world dying.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
As the second film ended with Earth being wiped off the face of the universe, I am... very excited to see what the third of five films will be about. Seeing as the "planet of the Apes" is Earth.
00:45: We begin with men in a helicopter finding what looks like Taylor's old spacecraft, suggesting that we're in the present day or something close to it. So that's the first obvious shift.
04:20: And it is revealed that the three space-suited individuals in the craft are three apes, including Cornelius (Roddy McDowall is back) and Zira. So they traveled backward in time, somehow.
06:10: It seems odd that as soon as the humans realize there were three walking/space-traveling apes in the spaceship, they bring them back to a military base without... y'know, freaking out about the apes being able to fly in a spaceship.
08:15: This appears to be the first Planet of the Apes movie with even a mild sense of humor, so that's a plus.
09:05: Knowing what little we do about how the apes traveled back to the present, it's hard to wonder why they didn't talk to reveal themselves more fully to the military. Being stuck in a zoo infirmary doesn't sound like that great of a deal.
11:30: So, basically, before the Earth blew up, these three tried to escape and managed to get sucked back two millennia in the past. Convenient!
13:10: One of two doctors brought in to look at the three apes is played by Natalie Trundy, who also played one of the telepaths in the second film in this series.
16:30: All things considered, only one of the two doctors fainting when they see and hear Zira speaking is pretty decent.
17:27: In the last 57 seconds, Dr. Milo tried to calm Cornelius and Zira, and then a gorilla randomly grabbed him, choked him to death, and we got a very fast montage of animals from all over the zoo roaring, making noises, etc. Things escalated... uh... quickly.
24:35: It's an interesting inversion to watch this Presidential Inquiry sequence, which feels very much like a switch of how Taylor is treated in the first film. (Though arguably, Dr. Dixon and the humans here are presented as slightly less cruel than characters like Dr. Zaius were.)
26:15: There is a priest on the inquiry who is very angry that these two apes are "wedded." Sorry, dude.
27:05: The audience at this inquiry is super into Cornelius and Zira bickering. Apes: they're just like us!
35:10: The reporter just called Cornelius and Zira "ape-o-nauts." That's the best you can do?
40:40: Zira is just chilling in a hot tub in her hotel room right now, and you know something, this is the goofiest movie in the series so far. But in a good way? So far? It's weird to watch one of these movies have a sense of humor about itself.
42:55: Zira is apparently pregnant, which raises all sorts of images in my mind, few of them pleasant. Zira says she's known she was pregnant "since well before the war," and that seems like the kind of thing that might have been worth mentioning in an earlier movie.
46:40: Nice to watch a movie where a U.S. president seems to have a heart towards someone who looks different than he does.
53:35: It's fascinating to hear the backstory of how the apes became dominant, while at the same time, it's hard for me to wonder why this was not made much clearer in an earlier entry in the series. This is what I wanted to hear in the second film.
57:00: Funny how, over the last 15 minutes, this movie has lost its sense of humor.
1:02:40: Wouldn't the best way to prevent any concern from the apes be for humans to just wipe out all apes? I don't mean to advocate that, but if they're unopposed to terminating Zira's pregnancy, why not just do it to all apes? Why keep them around, if you know they're going to be the downfall of man?
1:18:30: Zira has given birth to a boy named Milo, and she and Cornelius are about to go on the run again, and seriously, what is with the first part of this movie trying to be funny when it gets so grim by the end? These movies shouldn't be funny!
1:21:30: This movie is also the most low-key of the series so far, which is saying something. After that initial bout of people digging the apes as mini-celebrities, it's gotten much quieter.
1:27:05: Hasslein is on the move, trying to capture Cornelius and Zira, and even here, with just 10 minutes left, there's only so much tension. The low-budget filmmaking is, I imagine, a big part of why the stakes here feel so small. Maybe it's also because I imagine the series isn't about to suggest that the future we see in the first two movies is going to be shifted.
1:35:00: This is not quite the nihilistic finale of the first two films, but it's pretty sad nonetheless. Zira and Cornelius have both been shot and are dying, Hasslein has been killed, and the baby Zira was carrying around has also been shot multiple times. But the final twist is that Zira's actual baby is still with Ricardo Montalban's circus. The effect of that chimpanzee baby saying "Mama" is... uh... pretty cheap. But anyway. Another depressing 90 minutes with the Planet of the Apes! Only two more to go.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
As was the case with the other sequels, I have no idea what to expect with this movie. I would imagine this will continue from the cliffhanger in the third movie, which suggests that little baby ape Milo has some ability to speak.
This film was directed by J. Lee Thompson, who directed the original Cape Fear. And this.
00:20: Boy, this one is just jumping straight into it. The title cards have come up, during which time we learn that it's 1991, and some human prison guards are leading a whole lot of lumbering apes in jumpsuits. And Roddy McDowall is still the lead!
04:30: Montalban and McDowall (who is indeed playing a grown version of Cornelius and Zira's son now) have just helpfully informed each other of exposition from previous films, aka things that they already know.
08:00: So, an astronaut (which one, I don't know) brought back a virus that killed every dog and cat, and humans instead decided to treat apes as pets. I mean, leaving aside the fact that the events of the third film would suggest that humans should not want to get too close to apes, I... don't know. Apes don't exactly seem friendly (and I mean would be real apes, not the apes of this series). Seems like a bit of a stretch, and yes, I realize I'm talking about the internal logic of a movie series about apes who walk and talk.
12:00: It is not exactly subtle that the one human brave enough to tell the police officers that they're being too harsh is a black man. I get what the movie's doing — again, it's not exactly subtle to see this as a treatise on race relations in the country. I'm not entirely sure it works, but it is... admirable. I guess. I think.
19:00: I feel like a whole lot of the problem here being voiced by this odious Governor, this fear of apes rising up against humans, begins when you keep them as slaves. Maybe don't make them resentful of all humans if you're worried they'll overthrow you!
26:15: The music playing as we watch apes be taught how to wash their hands is very jaunty. Too jaunty, by which I mean there should be no music categorized as jaunty in any of these films.
32:55: We're watching Governor Breck's aide McDonald (the aforementioned black man who is kinder than other humans towards the apes) show Milo how to make a cocktail, and again, maybe these dudes need to just pour their own damn drinks.
35:19: No longer Milo! He just "named" himself Caesar, and hey, there's a name I recognize from somewhere.
43:55: Something slightly funny about watching the apes begin to rebel, if only because it's happening in such small ways. Yeah, random ape, you show that person by painting shoe-shine material on his sock!
56:20: Convenient that the electro-shock table has a dedicated breaker labeled "Shock Table."
1:04:37: In a lot of ways, it feels like this whole series has really built up to this kind of climax: how the apes overtake the humans, or begin to. If only we didn't have to wait until the fourth film in the franchise to get here.
1:10:05: One thing this movie doesn't do a good job of is make the world around this little area, the city center where the film takes place, seem like anyone's there. It's all very self-contained, to the point of claustrophobia. It's like there's no world beyond the city center.
1:22:00: This heated back-and-forth between MacDonald and Caesar feels like it's the core of what the new trilogy turned into. I wish the whole movie was this pointed, this intense.
1:24:00: Uh... things have changed rapidly. Two minutes ago, Caesar was about to let Breck get killed, but then Caesar's love interest Lisa (also played by Natalie Trundy, from the previous two films) kind of said "No," so he's going back on his word. That... uh... what?
1:25:00: I learn from the Internet that the original ending featured Breck getting killed, which...duh. Preview audiences didn't like it, so the filmmakers cobbled together this speech, and so we get this very abrupt ending, in a series full of abrupt endings. In general, this one's compact quality (at 87 minutes, it's the shortest of the series) is a good thing, but it's too self-contained and that ending is just out of nowhere.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
Okay, I'm about to press play on the final film, which I presume will pick up from where the last one left off, with Roddy McDowall's Caesar leading his own planet...of the apes.
00:00: The movie opens in... the year 2670, in North America. And I'm pretty sure that the narration I'm hearing is from... John Huston. Uh……
01:15: Why is John Huston narrating the last two movies to me?
03:17: This feels like a fairly long recap of the third and fourth films. Did the filmmakers or 20th Century Fox presume no one had seen the last two movies before watching this one?
05:55: John Huston's character is called "The Lawgiver." Sure.
06:15: "Introducing Paul Williams as Virgil." Yes, that Paul Williams. The one from Phantom of the Paradise and the same man who co-wrote "The Rainbow Connection." This is already the weirdest film.
10:58: Williams' character Virgil is a scientist, and within the first ten seconds of him speaking, he's talking about musicians. He just can't help it!
11:40: We meet Cornelius, the son of Caesar, as he gives his human teacher a message that "Ape shall never kill Abe." See, because the teacher's name is Abe. He's saying he'll never kill his teacher. Suck-up. (I bet that teacher is dead in a half-hour.)
12:40: The human teacher has "spoken the unspeakable": the word "No." It's like the apes are the Knights of Ni from Holy Grail. There's one word they fear!
14:38: Caesar is introduced to help break up an attack by gorillas on the human teacher, in which he says, "I am the law." So he's Judge Dredd!
15:30: Watching a close-up of the brutish gorilla general Aldo talking, it's just...they never figured out a way to make the effect of actors in ape costumes talking believable. It's so cheap-looking.
16:28: Caesar just called his aide, a black man, MacDonald. So... it's the guy from the last movie? Not the same actor, but I guess that wouldn't stop them from recasting.
19:15: Ah, no. The character just clarified that his brother was the assistant of that nasty governor from the last film. So no recasting needed.
20:50: So I guess the major thrust of this one is that Caesar is going to look for archived tapes of his parents (presumably from the third movie), to see about the future of the Planet of the Apes. That...feels kind of dull.
28:30: So, the "Forbidden" City, aka New York City, is still occupied by humans who have been mutated. It looks grim and also kind of dull, much like what we see in the second film. At least the ape/human society is outside, not stuck in these bland gray chambers.
30:11: To the movie's credit, the guy playing the mutated Governor was also in the fourth movie as one of Caesar's torturers. Continuity!
50:30: There's just a lot of buildup here. The apes are possibly going to attack the humans, the gorillas want to attack everyone, the mutated humans want to kill the apes, and on and on and on.
54:55: Aldo tells his gorillas, "We need power. Guns! Guns are power!" Ah, if only this movie weren't still so timely.
58:30: This is a pretty weak entry in the franchise.
1:05:00: Aldo has managed to create a situation where he's invoking martial law, and again, there's something harebrained about all of this. Aldo's single-minded bloodlust is believable, but it doesn't make for a compelling conflict.
1:13:23: Finally, we get to another battle between humans and apes. They shouldn't have waited until the fourth and fifth films to get here. It's hard for me to take this fight seriously when I see things like Paul Williams in a literal monkey suit brandishing and firing a rifle.
1:21:25: There was a kind of fakeout the apes played on the mutated humans, after which they instantly dominate the fight. Awful weird to have the triumphant music playing over humans being captured, but I get it.
1:26:34: Roddy McDowall deserves credit for making much of these movies palatable. His reaction to learning that Aldo killed Cornelius is intense, even as many of the other actors feel like they're overacting here.
1:29:26: However, the ensuing confrontation between Aldo and Caesar on a tree, played out in silence, is... not that exciting. Feels kind of anticlimactic.
1:34:51: Oh, right, John Huston is in this movie. He's telling the story to young apes and humans, and we end with a shot of a statue of Caesar, a single tear rolling down its cheek, I kid you not.
Yeah, so this was probably the second-worst entry in the series, after the second film. McDowall is fine, but a lot of this is just low-budget drivel.
As a closing rank: Planet > Escape > Conquest > Beneath > Battle. But I should note: I don't think I really liked any of these. If I did, just the first one, but only barely. That film works the best of these five, but knowing the endgame only made it so interesting to watch.