Overkill of the week: Planet Of The Apes: The Ultimate DVD Collection, which shoves all the original films, the TV series, the cartoon, and the 2001 remake into life-sized ape-head packaging. That's more than a sane person needs, but it's no reason to ignore the simultaneously released Legacy Collection, which boxes the original films and contains some of the smartest cinematic science fiction of its era—and some of the dumbest, though it remains oddly compelling at either end of the spectrum.
Why? It's partly the apes. That may sound obvious, but if John Chambers' original makeup designs hadn't found the perfect mix of animal and human, chances are there wouldn't be enough Apes films to fill a two-disc case, much less a box set. Because they act like us without looking like us, they provided filmmakers with a way of talking about human life from a comfortable distance.
Take Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes. Released in 1972, the series' penultimate chapter features an ape revolt under the leadership of series regular Roddy McDowall. As civil unrest swept the real-life globe, the film portrayed ape shoeshine men and waiters refusing to perform their tasks as their underground brethren gathered weapons to take over a cold, concrete city of the near-future (actually a then-uninhabited Century City, CA). What was uncomfortable for privileged Americans to talk about at the dinner table returned in the form of a matinee nightmare.
The 1968 original, directed by Franklin Schaffner and starring Charlton Heston, remains the best of the lot, even for a generation that grew up having its ending spoiled by The Simpsons. Its social conscience and deep concern with what it means to be human remains unspoiled. The 1970 sequel Beneath The Planet Of The Apes may be the worst; it's a joyless retread that at least has the distinction of ending with the nuclear annihilation of Earth. (MPAA rating: "G.") But Escape From The Planet Of The Apes gets the series back on track, sending three apes back to the 20th century for a story that begins comically and ends in the fear and loathing that necessitates the rebellion of Conquest, which ties the whole series into a tidy Möbius strip.
Perhaps unavoidably, 1973's Battle For The Planet Of The Apes serves as an unnecessary appendix, but even this uninspired outing taps into the series' central points: Be careful who you define as "us" and "them": We're here together, no matter what.
Key features: A thorough making-of bonus disc.