The end of Planet of the Apes is famous for its twist - Taylor was on Earth all along! - but for true Apes aficionados that film’s finale isn’t about a twist but rather about a nihilistic punch in the gut, a true bummer, one that would echo throughout the rest of the series. Almost every Apes film has a downer of an ending, and I’ve arranged them in the scientific order of which film has the biggest bummer conclusion. Let's start with the film whose ending is least of a bummer and work our way up to the most devastating finale.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
There’s a bittersweet quality to the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with James Franco’s Will Rodman saying goodbye to Caesar in the woods. The ape has led his people through the gauntlet of mankind and found a new home, safe away from the city. There is sadness in saying farewell, but it’s the sadness of a parent sending their child away to school. You can only raise a kid so long - eventually they have to go off on their own and put to use the lessons you taught them.
Of course the film has the inevitable destruction of mankind happening, but that plays out like an afterthought, happening against the end credits. It’s like the movie knows what it needs to do, but it doesn’t want to rub your face in the fact that Will Rodman’s research has essentially doomed mankind.
But who cares about mankind? All of our characters have made it to the end intact, and more than that they’ve maintained their basic morality and ethics. Caesar led a rebellion that was as non-violent as it could have been, and his only goal was to be separate, not dominant. In those last moments, as Caesar tells Will that he’s home, it’s easy to imagine that everything is going to be okay. Especially if you leave during the credits, as most people do.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
This is a weird one, because if I included the original, deleted ending to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes it would rank very high in bummers. But the theatrical ending - which we must accept as canon otherwise Battle for the Planet of the Apes makes no sense - is actually fairly hopeful and positive, with the apes finding freedom while also showing their human captors a mercy never shown to the primates.
Racial politics always swirled through the Planet of the Apes films, but none made race relations as explicit as Conquest. The film’s ape uprising was specifically informed by the Watts Riots, and the movie’s characters exhibit a cross-section of then-current thinking on racial liberation. There’s Governor Breck, who is an abject racist. There’s Caesar, whose freedom by any means necessary tactics reflect the more extreme aspects of black nationalism. And then there’s MacDonald, who is basically giving the moderate left-wing point of view: yes, liberation is necessary, but can we do it without violence?
In the end MacDonald, who has helped Caesar, tries to talk the ape leader down from taking his revolution on a path of violence. Caesar is about to have Breck beaten and killed by his gorillas when MacDonald argues that more violence isn’t the way. In the original cut Caesar doesn’t listen; Breck is brutally murdered by the gorillas as Caesar stands proud in the smoke of a civilization he is burning down. It is profoundly bleak, a monument to the inescapable nature of violence and destruction. This is what the series has always been saying, and in this chapter it truly smacks us in the face with the message.
Caesar delivers this incindiery speech:
Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch and conspire and plot and plan for the inevitable day of Man's downfall - the day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we will build our own cities in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you... now!
But preview audiences revolted. The most likely reason is that the film’s racial messages were so clear that they automatically saw what the ending meant: the civil rights movement was headed inexorably towards a violent revolution that would see the oppressors overthrown, that peace can never exist between blacks and whites. And these preview audiences (in Arizona, so likely all white people at the time) were horrified. The destruction of the world? They could roll with it. The deaths of the main characters? Bring it on. A barely concealed allegory for how blacks will rise up against whites and kill them? No fucking way.
There wasn’t enough of a budget to reshoot the ending, so through editing tricks and additional dialogue they were able to change things around. Caesar is about to have Breck killed, despite the protestations of MacDonald, when suddenly Lisa, Caesar’s girlfriend and a mute ape, cries out “No!” She’s the first ape to speak, and she uses her voice in service of peace.
And just like that Caesar changes his mind and puts an addendum on his incitement to violence:
But now... now we will put away out hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the Night of the Fires. And who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God. And, if it is man's destiny to be dominated, it is God's will that he be dominated with compassion and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!
It’s a much softer finale, one that steps away from the abyss. Every previous film to date had the situation escalating to a crisis, and the argument was that no one can navigate these crises. For the first time in the series the crisis is averted; change is made but without resorting to extremism.
The white people were safe. It’s the second happiest ending in the series.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
This could be a controversial position, since Battle for the Planet of the Apes ends on what seems to be a hopeful note. But there’s a dark edge to that hope, one that indicates maybe things won’t turn out so well after all.
The final film in the original series, Battle sees Caesar not only dealing with the threat of mutants in the nearby irradiated city but also facing dissent within his own society as the gorilla Aldo chafes at living peacefully with humans (Battle is very much the blueprint for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, you’ll note). In the end Caesar’s son is killed by Aldo and Caesar and Aldo fight in a big tree, from which Aldo falls to his death (Battle, unlike Dawn, refuses to put blood on Caesar’s hands). Caesar decrees that humans and apes must live together in peace as equals.
Then the movie jumps forward 600 years (which still puts us about 1400 years before the original Planet of the Apes), and the Lawgiver - the ape whose image is revered far into the future - is telling us this story while children play around him. The children are ape and human, and they seem to be getting along. But then a little ape boy pulls a human girl’s hair; is this a playful moment? An ominous indication of future trouble?
One of the children asks “Lawgiver, who knows about the future?” and the Lawgiver says, gravely, “Perhaps only the dead,” and the camera pans to a Caesar statue… which cries a single tear.
What does that mean?! That’s the big Rorschach test at the end of the movie; is the tear for the strife and pain that led to this place where the timeline has changed and coexistence between ape and man is possible? Or is the tear because the future is set in stone, and this moment of happiness is fleeting and soon humans and apes will be divided, and the world will still be hurtling towards the dark finale of Beneath the Planet of the Apes?
We will never know.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Other Apes films end on bigger bummers - the end of the world! The deaths of beloved characters! - but the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes hit me on a deep existential level that I found truly in the spirit of the darkest Apes movies. Throughout the film Malcolm and Caesar have been desperately trying to maintain a peace between their two cultures, trying to forge a new world out of the ashes of the old. But starting new is harder than they anticipated, and others in their camps with longstanding grudges worked to bring everything down.
First Caesar makes the most morally complex choice in any of the Apes films - he lets Koba fall to his death. “Ape shall not kill ape” is the fundamental law of ape society in all the films, and here - in its earliest days! - Caesar is forced to break it. But he breaks it in the ugly way that despots do, by rewriting it. “You’re not ape,” he says to Koba as he lets the broken chimp go. Some animals are more equal than others, George Orwell might have said in his allegory about the Russian Revolution (Koba, not coincidentally, was a nickname Stalin carried in the early days). Caesar makes this choice because he must - Koba will not stop until he is put down - but the idea that one ape gets to decide that other apes are not afforded the same protection is chilling, especially in a world of extraordinary renditions and black site prisons.
After that Caesar and Malcolm meet one last time before parting ways. The US military is headed to San Francisco, and there’s no way to avoid a battle. “I thought we had a chance,” Malcolm says before he leaves - abandoning Caesar to face what comes next.
And then Caesar, who has worked so hard to be a leader of peace, must assume the mantle of war chief. He steps forward with his entire family as all the apes bow before him, a disastrous armed conflict approaching like a storm. Caesar has no other options, and the fact that he stands there with his wife and two sons indicates that he suspects they’re all going to die together. He is facing the inevitability that the peaceful society he tried to build has utterly failed.
The ending of Dawn is, like the best bummer endings of the original films, an accusation. We will never get our shit together, the movie says. All of our best intentions will fall before the endless onslaught of violence and hatred, and it is easier to burn down than it is to build up.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
The ending of the original Planet of the Apes isn’t just a bummer because poor Taylor discovers he’s crash landed on Earth in the future and everything is fucked up - it’s a bummer because the events of the movie actually validate Taylor’s extreme misanthropy from the beginning of the film.
What sort of person would volunteer to take a millenia-long one way mission to the stars? According to Planet of the Apes a guy who doesn’t much like living on planet Earth. As the movie opens Taylor, about to go to cryo-sleep, gives one of the great grumpy speeches of all time, which includes bits like:
Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor's children starving?
I can't help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be.
Imagine me needing someone. Back on Earth I never did. Oh, there were women. Lots of women. Lots of love-making but no love. You see, that was the kind of world we'd made. So I left, because there was no one to hold me there.
When he comes to the planet of the apes he discovers humans at the bottom of the food chain, and suddenly Taylor is put into a position where he must fight for his own kind. The guy who fled humanity is now their defender. That’s a great arc - the misanthrope who comes to stand for the race that he previously despised. But then the big twist happens and all of a sudden Taylor is broken, not because he was on Earth all along but because the sight of the Statue of Liberty on the beach proves he was right in the first place! Humanity was just as useless and destructive as he believed! The path of our race is only towards destruction!
In the end Taylor’s negativity is completely vindicated, and that’s the biggest bummer of them all.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
Charlton Heston had a demand when he came back for a sequel to Planet of the Apes: he didn’t want to come back for any more Apes movies. And the filmmakers gave him what he wanted: at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes Heston’s Colonel Taylor is shot dead by gorillas, but not before he can set off the Alpha-Omega bomb, a cobalt nuke that destroys the entire planet.
The entire film leading up to that is a bummer; the apes are hellbent on going to war with whatever lives in the Forbidden Zone, while the mutants who live in the Forbidden Zone are just a bunch of torturing racist assholes who worship the atomic weapons that destroyed the world in the first place. The movie’s climax takes place in the ruins of St. Patrick’s Cathedral where the Alpha-Omega is the center of a religious service; the rampaging apes just straight murder every mutant in their path. The hero of the movie is Brent, who has come from the past looking for Taylor and he ends up getting shot right between the eyes. Taylor asks Dr. Zaius to help end the bloodshed, but the orangutan refuses, saying that man has brought this destruction upon himself. In retaliation the dying Taylor hits the doomsday button and boom. The film ends with this voice over:
In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.
Once again an Apes movie gives us the ultimate nihilism. There is no hope! Intelligent life, the movie argues, will eventually destroy itself. And possibly everything else. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s all because nobody knows how to deal with crisis situations. Coming at a time when the world was in a constant crisis situation, Beneath the Planet of the Apes offered no comfort at all. We will never work it out, the movie says.
Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971)
The third film in the series has the most unbelievably dark ending of the whole franchise (and that’s saying something, since the previous picture ended with the Earth being blown up). The first half of Escape From the Planet of the Apes plays like a light comedy; Cornelius and Zira, the beloved chimp co-stars of the prior two movies, have escaped the destruction of the world by traveling back in time to the 1970s. There the talking apes are treated as celebrities, and there’s even a sweet and funny montage of them shopping at the finest stores in Beverly Hills. But when the president’s science advisor Dr. Hasslein learns that Zira is pregnant and that they come from a future where ape dominates man, he decides the child must be aborted. The film ends with Cornelius and Zira hiding out on an abandoned freighter at a shipyard, Hasslein pumping bullets first into Zira’s back and then into the swaddled baby chimp, Milo, she has just birthed. Sweet peacenik Cornelius, in a fit of rage, guns down Hasslein before himself being shot to death by cops on the shore. Cornelius falls from the upper decks of the boat, dead, as Zira crawls to the wreckage of baby Milo and throws him into the ocean.
Oof. This is a G rated picture, by the way.
There’s one final bit that sort of alleviates the bummer aspect - it turns out that Zira switched her baby when she was hiding out in the circus. The real baby Milo is safe and, as the movie ends, saying his first word: “Mama.”
The end of Escape isn’t just a bummer because all the beloved characters - the comedic relief characters! - are shot dead. It’s also a bummer because like the previous Apes movie the film passes judgment on us - we will never be better. Even Cornelius, a dedicated peace activist who got in trouble for helping Taylor evade the ape authorities, ends up becoming a killer in the end. All of our moral convictions, the film says, will fall away given the right circumstances.
The other big bummer is that you realize maybe Hasslein isn’t entirely wrong. Everybody else in the movie is very cavalier about humanity becoming slaves of apes in two thousand years, but Hasslein compares this to everybody ignoring pollution or overpopulation. He gives this angry speech:
Later we'll do something about pollution. Later we'll do something about the population explosion. Later we'll do something about the nuclear war. We think we've got all the time in the world, but how much time has the world got? Somebody has to begin to care.
It’s a bummer because he was totally right.