'Planet of the Apes' Through the Years: How the Primates Have Evolved Since 1968

8:30 AM 7/11/2017

by Victoria Berggren

With 'War for the Planet of the Apes' set for a July 14 release, THR takes a look at the evolution of the simians over the years.

Over a span of nearly 50 years, the Planet of the Apes franchise has undergone a major evolution.

From live-action to an animated series to computer-generated images, the primates continue to take new forms as technology advances in the years since Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel was first adapted into a feature film starring Charlton Heston.

With the newest installment in the saga — War for the Planet of the Apes — set to hit theaters July 14, take a look at how these famous apes have changed since they first appeared on the big screen.

  • Planet of the Apes (1968)

    In 1968, a team of veteran writers, directors and actors came together to create the first of many Planet of the Apes movies.

    The movie turned out to be a critical and commercial hit, spawning sequels, TV series and reboots.

    Charlton Heston starred as American astronaut George Taylor, who travels to a faraway planet inhabited by hyper-intelligent apes, where the humans are mute. (Spoiler alert: In the end, he learns that the planet was Earth all along; it had been destroyed by a nuclear war.

    Special effects makeup was used to transform actors into their primate characters. The film received accolades for its special effects makeup, going on to earn an honorary Oscar at the 41st Academy Awards.

    THR's John Mahoney praised the film in his 1968 review: "By its appeal to both the imagination and the intellect within a context of action and elemental adventure, in its relevance to the consuming issues of its time, by the means with which it provides maximum entertainment topped with a sobering prediction of the future of human folly, 20th-Fox's release of Arthur P. Jacobs' production, Planet of the Apes, is that rare film which will transcend all age and social groupings, its multiple levels of appeal and meaning winning response in similar kind if not degree at each.

    "Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner with an unfaltering ability to invest the basic fantasy with credibility while bringing the deeper implications into relief, and benefiting from a finely crafted Michael Wilson-Rod Serling screenplay adapted from the novel by Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes stars Charlton Heston, in whose performance man the individual and man the symbol are uniquely conjoined. Planet of the Apes equals gargantuan box office."

    Indeed, when Fox brought Planet of the Apes to Los Angeles for its opening day March 27, 1968, at the Beverly Theatre, moviegoers lined up "around the block" and grosses "smashed all opening day marks" at the location.

  • Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

    After the first film's success, the movie was followed by a sequel.

    James Franciscus starred as a new character, while Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans and Linda Harrison reprised their roles. {Spoiler alert: Charlton Heston is featured in a supporting role in which his character is killed off.)

    The film which followed new character Brent (Franciscus) as he sets out in search for George Taylor (Heston) and discovers the planet of the apes.

    The apes were still portrayed by human actors in elaborate costuming and makeup.

    The film was a critical disappointment but nearly match the box office returns of the original, spawning a third film.

  • Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971)

    The third installment follows the apes as they journey back in time to the contemporary United States and struggle to find their place within society. 

    Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall (returning to the franchise after sitting out the first sequel) were transformed into their starring roles through makeup and costuming. 

    The movie performed well at the box office, prompting Fox to order a fourth film.

  • Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

    The tables have turned, and the humans have turned apes into their slaves. Following years of enslavement and abuse, the primates decide to rebel, setting out to fight their freedom and end mankind.

    The actors still utilizing costumes and makeup to achieve their ape-ish appearance.  

  • Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

    Following a war that nearly destroyed the world, the apes and humans duel for control over what is left of the planet. 

    Even though the film made a profit, it has been regarded by critics as the weakest of the series. 

  • 'Planet of the Apes' (1974)

    Following the films, the franchise was adapted into an hourlong television series.

    Ron Harper and James Naughton starred as astronauts who travel to the planet of the apes where they find that, contrary to the movies, the apes have enslaved humans, who can now speak.

    Similar to the movies, the apes were still played by live-action actors with Roddy McDowall reprising his role as chimpanzee Galen, Mark Lenard as gorilla General Urko and Booth Coleman as orangutan Councilor Zaius

    The show premiered on Sept. 13, 1974, but ended in December after 14 episodes because of low ratings.

  • Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975)

    After the live-action series failed, NBC decided to take a different approach and create an animated series.

    After receiving low ratings, the series ended after only 13 episodes.

  • 'Planet of the Apes' (2001)

    Mark Wahlberg starred as Leo Davidson, an astronaut who accidentally goes through a wormhole and finds himself stranded on a planet where apes have imprisoned humans, in Tim Burton's version of the movie. Throughout the film, Wahlberg's character leads a human uprising against the primitive tyrants.

    The film, which reportedly had undergone rewrites, budget cuts and a rushed production schedule, was met with mixed reviews. The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Dalton wrote in an article ranking Burton's films from worst to best that Planet of the Apes, which Dalton ranked as Burton's worst film, that the "reboot lacks the originality and cult appeal of its 1968 blueprint. Mark Wahlberg does a decent job filling Charlton Heston’s shoes as an astronaut who crash-lands on a post-apocalyptic monkey world. But Burton’s quirky, visionary voice gets lost in the mechanics of a boorish action blockbuster."

    Yet the work of Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker was praised by critics at the time: "The movie is great-looking," wrote Roger Ebert. "Rick Baker's makeup is convincing even in the extreme close-ups, and his apes sparkle with personality and presence."

    Fox initially anticipated a sequel but later decided not to move forward with one.

  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

    The franchise was rebooted again with Rise of the Planet of the Apes on Aug. 5, 2011.

    Andy Serkis, known also for his work as Gollum in Lord of the Rings, was cast as Caesar, a genetically enhanced ape who after years of abuse and enslavement at the hands of his human captors decides to fight back.

    This was the first of the Planet of the Apes films not to use actors in ape suits but instead employed Weta Digital to create the primates through performance capture. The movie's visual effects led to an Oscar nomination, and its success at the box office led Fox to greenlight a sequel. (See more on how Serkis was transformed into an ape here.)

    "Learning what they learned on King Kong to Avatar only brought their technology to another level .. to make our apes look real," producer Dylan Clark said of Weta in a featurette about the film's effects. Director Rupert Wyatt said the movie marked the was the first time in a live-action feature where the main character (an ape) was a "thoughtful, feeling, self-aware animal."

    Star James Franco also explained the process: "If you look at the original Planet of the Apes, you had actors in masks. ... [For Rise], you'd think it's all done on a blue-screen stage, but we've advanced to the point where we do it on regular sets. Andy shows up in a gray kind of pajamas outfit with wires all over it, and he has a camera on his arm pointed on his face that captures all his expressions, and his behavior is so realistic that you immediately see beyond it. Your imagination takes over. It's like acting with a chimpanzee with the best acting instincts."

    For his part, Serkis has said: "It's no different than live action acting. And I never considered (performance capture) anything else but live action acting. You are reacting and acting with other people."

    Wrote THR's Todd McCarthy in his review: "Making the most of special effects breakthroughs pioneered on Avatar as well as on the extensive ape performance background of Andy 'King Kong' Serkis, Rise closes the door on the makeup-and-hairpiece monkeyshines of the original Apes sequels once and for all. The success of the new film pivots on viewer belief that the genetically advanced primates here possess emotional and cranial capacities similar to those of humans; so completely is this achieved that audiences will be cheering for these sensitive creatures as they take revenge on their tormentors by launching an unusually ambitious animal-liberation movement."

  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

    Following the success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the same team of writers came together to create Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

    Serkis reprised his role as Caesar, now ruler over the apes, who have taken power. However, he faces war against the few surviving humans while struggling to maintain control over his primate community. The humans were played by Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman.

    A combination of practical sets and computer-generated images was used to create the film (Weta Digital also worked on this movie), again placing the movie in the running for an Academy Award.

    THR's McCarthy wrote that "the no-doubt extensive CGI effects overseen by master visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri mesh nearly seamlessly with the real backgrounds." Of Serkis' performance, he noted: "Whatever anyone might think about the film as a whole, there is no question that Andy Serkis gives the most expressive, soulful, deeply felt performance of a non-human character the big screen has ever offered as the mature Caesar."

  • War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

    The latest film in the series chronicles Caesar, once again reprised by veteran Andy Serkis, and his band of apes as the fight the ultimate battle to decide the fate of mankind and the planet. War for the Planet of the Apes is set to hit theaters July 14.

    THR's McCarthy wrote in his review: "Almost as rare as winning the Triple Crown in horse racing is to make a film trilogy that clicks from beginning to end, but Fox has pretty much pulled it off with its refurbished Planet of the Apes trio. After surprising everyone who felt that the half-century-old franchise had been buried for good by Tim Burton's lamentable monkeyshines in 2001, the 'Caesar' triptych — rooted in Andy Serkis' indelible performance as a reluctant rebel leader, splendid special effects and a shrewd racial/political thematic thread — amply satisfies as a smart sub-set of the nine-and-counting Apes features and two TV shows."

    The film also stars Woody Harrelson, Judy Greer and Steve Zahn.