Why 'Planet of the Apes' Is the Greatest Science Fiction Film Series of All Time

Why 'Planet of the Apes' Is the Greatest Science Fiction Film Series of All Time

Jul 03, 2014

Welcome to The Last Sci-fi Blog, our biweekly column about all things science fiction in movies.

Planet of the Apes is the greatest science fiction movie series of all time. This is as close to a fact as opinions about movie franchises get. Seriously. The math backs it up.

But what about Star Wars, you ask? Okay. Well, there are six Star Wars movies, but only two of them (the 1977 original and The Empire Strikes Back) are universally beloved. That's a success rate of roughly 33%. Some of you will definitely go to bat for Star Trek, but of the 11 feature films, only a handful truly hold up: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country and 2011's reboot, Star Trek. That's also a 33% success rate, give or take a few decimal points. Not to mention the fact that Trek's best moments have always been on the small screen, not the big one. Alien? Two great films, one interesting misfire, one disaster, and one baffling but beautiful prequel. If we're going to go with numbers again that's only a 20% success rate. The numbers get lower if you consider the Alien vs. Predator films canon.

But Planet of the Apes has an astonishing 85% success rate, which makes it, by default, the greatest cinematic sci-fi series ever. But it goes behind these (purely subjective, wholly silly and, yes, tongue-in-cheek) numbers. No film series has taken as many daring chances as this one and few have been smarter. Let's break this down.

The original Planet of the Apes is an undisputed masterpiece of the genre, blending wacky science, satire, social commentary and two-fisted adventure into a stunning, creepy and iconic package. Everyone remembers (and quotes) the big twist ending, but everything that happens before it is nothing short of astonishing. The characters, both ape and human, are perfectly cast and acted, the world building is clever and the final message is chilling. It's pretty much a perfect film.

Its immediate follow-up, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, isn't as polished, but it makes up for its lower budget with a scrappy attitude and the willingness to just get plain weird. It would have been easy for everyone involved to phone this one in (and to be fair, original star Charlton Heston does), but instead, the series takes a hard left turn into crazyville, introducing mutants who dwell underground and worship atomic weapons and ending with... well, you probably know and if you don't, it should be a surprise. This is far more of an obvious B movie than the original, but man oh man, you can't phone in this special brand of nuttiness.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes represents the series once again refusing to take the easy way out. With the introduction of time travel, the series pretty much throws scientific reason out the window, but it's not missed in this entry, which values character and gentle comedy over any kind of hard science. Of course, the amusing first half is just an elaborate ruse to catch you off guard for the second half, which may be one of the greatest gut punches in cinematic history. Escape from the Planet of the Apes is frivolous until it's not, offering a break from the harshness of the first two films before painfully reminding you that nothing nice happens to anyone in these films (and we shouldn't expect anything else).

Although still lacking the polish of the first film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is one angry movie, channeling the social injustices of its era to create a pitch-black story that's an obvious but powerful metaphor for race relations in America. Modern genre movies do everything in their power to avoid politics or offending the masses, so this one is downright shocking. It's a scrappy production, but science fiction this passionate and politically charged and challenging demands our attention and respect.

And that brings us to Battle of the Planet of the Apes, the final film in the original series. And it's good! It's not great and it feels so much smaller than the rest of the series, but it continues to carry the torch lit by Conquest, forcing audiences to consider the moral and ethical decisions made by its characters.

This is the point where we could talk about Tim Burton's 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, but we'll just say it's the reason why the series' success rate sits at 85% and not 100%.

Finally, we arrive at Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which manages the tricky task of acting as a loose prequel to the original series while essentially being a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. On paper, it sounds like it could be a mess, but in execution, it couldn't be better. Sure, James Franco and the other humans don't offer much, but Andy Serkis' genetically altered super-chimp Caesar may be one of the greatest characters in modern science fiction and he's backed up by a supporting cast of incredible motion-capture simians, each of whom are more interesting than all of the humans combined. This is a beautifully made film pitched at the perfect scale, favoring characters and intimate action over bombast.

As I write this, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a week away from release and is already garnering rave reviews. I fully expect that 85% to hold and for Planet of the Apes to hold on to its crown as the greatest science fiction series of all time. Suck it, Star Wars.




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