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10 best Planet of the Apes movies, ranked

Caesar leading his army of apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
20th Century Studios

Planet of the Apes is one of the most unlikely film franchises in Hollywood history. The 1968 original is a social sci-fi thought experiment best remembered for its shocking twist ending. But rather than simply becoming one of cinema’s most ubiquitous spoilers, the revelation that the Planet of the Apes was Earth all along opened the door to a variety of new stories about power, oppression, compassion, hubris, societal self-destruction, and redemption.

Now, over half a century later, the saga of a world whose evolutionary ladder turned upside down is still in top form, delivering its most intriguing and compelling installments yet. They may not all be winners, but from Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z, nearly all of them are interesting.

A scowling Tim Roth as General Thade in the 2001 Planet of the Apes remake
20th Century Studios

10. Planet of the Apes (2001)

Yes, despite the existence of four, increasingly cheap sequels from the 1970s, the Tim Burton remake is still the worst Planet of the Apes movie. Though the special makeup effects applied to Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Roth, Michael Clarke Duncan, Paul Giamatti, and company are marvelous and the production designers clearly put their hearts into designing the ape city and culture, it’s all in the service of an awful script and loathsome characters.

It is a remake of a famously thought-provoking sci-fi classic, and yet it is brainless. It is an adventure movie starring first-rate actors as very convincing talking apes, and yet it is joyless. There’s no need to even get into specifics about the plot or the weird twist ending — this one’s a stinker. 

Gorilla General Aldo (Claude Akins) and his soldiers in Battle for the Planet of the Apes
20th Century Studios

9. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

Compared to the crushing disappointment that is Burton’s Planet, Battle for the Planet of the Apes enjoys the benefit of low expectations. At least, in hindsight — Battle was conceived as the epic finale of the initial Apes cycle, tying together threads from the entire series and offering a satisfying conclusion.

Unfortunately, the production was cursed with a shoestring budget and a script that no one involved seemed happy with. Despite fulfilling the promise of its title, with open warfare breaking out between the nascent Ape City and the mutant survivors of the nuclear apocalypse, Battle still manages to be boring. To its credit, it’s less aggressively unpleasant than the Burton remake, as well as a half-hour shorter.

General Ursa, Dr. Zaius, and an army of gorilla soldiers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes
20th Century Studios

8. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

The first sequel to Planet of the Apes starts out as a transparently lazy retread of the original, complete with bargain bin Charlton Heston look-alike James Franciscus as bland astronaut Brent. Midway through, however, Beneath goes from boring to bizarre. In addition to the Bronze Age simian civilization that hunts and enslaves humans, the titular planet turns out to house an underground commune of superhumans who literally worship the atomic bomb.

After another 40 minutes of broad social commentary and some shockingly violent images, Beneath more or less forgets about the planet’s titular apes altogether, then closes with an ending so bleak and abrupt that it’ll leave you wondering how it could possibly have a direct sequel. Is it good? No, but it’s too weird to hate.

Kim Hunter and Zira and Roddy McDowall as Cornelius caged in Escape from the Planet of the Apes
20th Century Studios

7. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

Released just one year after Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape employs a very convenient plot device to salvage two of the series’ most beloved characters from the Ape-ocalypse and bring them to the contemporary U.S. Essentially flipping the premise of the original on its head, chimpanzee scientists Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) become celebrities overnight, but their arrival in our time has connotations that the authorities cannot ignore.

Escape the Planet of the Apes begins as a fish- out-of-water comedy that embraces and amplifies the camp and satire of the original, but then swings wildly into tragedy to maintain the franchise’s tradition of bleak twist endings. It remains one of the strangest entries in the Apes saga, as well as one of its most sincere, endearing, and heartbreaking.

Caesar (Roddy McDowall) leads an ape uprising in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
20th Century Studios

6. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Set years after the events of Escape of the Planet of the Apes, Conquest takes place in a fascist, dystopian America where humans have domesticated and then enslaved millions of apes. Led by Caesar, the superintelligent offspring of the time-traveling Zira and Cornelius, the apes stage a violent revolution against their oppressors, and frankly, it rocks. For about 85 minutes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes pulls no punches, depicting the terrible consequences of exploiting any class of beings deemed to be lesser or expendable.

It’s an intensely, unapologetically angry film — too angry for audiences, as it turns out. After a negative reaction at test screenings, the studio hastily tacked on a new, softer ending. Though its social allegory is clumsy and its runtime is shockingly brief, Conquest contributed characters and concepts that would go on to inspire Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And, even on its own, it’s some good agitprop. 

Caesar looks out the bars of his cell in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
20th Century Studios

5. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Though ultimately overshadowed by its sequel, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes defied expectations, giving the dormant franchise a thrilling and thoughtful new beginning. While certainly not as radical or revolutionary as the original, Rise takes thematic cues and even a few story ideas wholesale from the classic film series and reshapes them to suit a modern blockbuster.

Most of all, it proved that visual effects and performance capture technology had advanced to the point that a fully computer-rendered chimpanzee could convey all of the innocence, vulnerability, and rage of their motion-captured actors. WETA Digital and Andy Serkis’ troupe of ape performers are the soul of this feature and have yet to be outdone, except by themselves.

Caesar rides with a grim expression on his face in War for the Planet of the Apes.
20th Century Studios

4. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

The conclusion of the Caesar Trilogy takes the emotionally burdened ape king (Andy Serkis) to a dark place. When his overtures of peace with the humans are met with violence and tragedy, Caesar embarks on a quest for revenge against the cold and calculating Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

The previous two films established Caesar as an idealist — first as a freedom fighter for his kind, then as a struggling peacemaker — and now, we see him fighting against his inner demons, and the sense that his moral code has brought him nothing but suffering. But as heavy as this story gets, there is so much joy in seeing him carried through this trial by his friends, including some who have been with him from the very beginning. On top of this introspection, we get a grand finale in the form of a top-tier cinematic jailbreak. 

Noa (played by Owen Teague) stands by Raka (played by Peter Macon) in KINGDOM OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.
20th Century Studios

3. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (2024)

After a seven-year hiatus, the Apes saga continues with a new cast and creative team. The film is intended to launch a new planned trilogy set centuries after the time of Caesar. While new lead chimp, Noa (Owen Teague), isn’t as captivating as Andy Serkis’s regal ape messiah, Kingdom expands the world of the franchise in exciting new directions.

It’s an adventure film that sets a young man on a journey of self-discovery while also setting up a complicated web of moral dilemmas that challenge both the characters and the audience. Plus, it gives us Raka (Peter Macon), the gentle orangutan philosopher who is simply a pleasure to spend time with. We love you, Raka. 

Roddy McDowall as Cornelius, Kim Hunter as Zira, and Charlton Heston as Taylor in the original Planet of the Apes
20th Century Studios

2. Planet of the Apes (1968)

The original Planet of the Apes remains one of the most groundbreaking films in Hollywood history. Debuting in the U.s. the same week as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Apes helped to reshape the general public’s opinion of science fiction, proving to those who weren’t already watching Star Trek or The Twilight Zone that the genre had more to offer than spectacle and whimsy.

Thanks in no small part to John Chambers’ groundbreaking makeup effects, Planet of the Apes captured the cultural zeitgeist and put forth a challenging social allegory that’s no less poignant half a century later. As long as there are groups who claim superiority over others, who claim a divine right to rule, or who use cultural or religious doctrine to justify their cruelty or ignorance, Planet of the Apes will always pack a punch.

Caesar and Koba face off in the flames of their village in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

1. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

“Shakespearean” is an adjective that gets thrown around a bit too liberally, especially by fans of genre cinema looking to legitimize their love for Star Wars or Black Panther. However, no sci-fi film in history deserves that label more than Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a character-focused epic about the burdens of power, the tragedy of loss, the value of family, and the sting of betrayal. Caesar (Andy Serkis), Koba (Toby Kebbell), and the rest of the primate leads are so compelling that not only can viewers forget that they’re CGI, BUT we can easily forget that they’re not human.

This is the power of cinema, the great empathy machine operating at peak efficiency. Beautifully shot, brilliantly written, and featuring Oscar-worthy performances by its unseen lead actors, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not only the best film in its franchise, but one of the best science fiction films ever made. 

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Dylan Roth
Dylan Roth [he/him] is a freelance film critic, and the co-host of the podcast "Are You Afraid of the Dark Universe?"
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