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Origin of the Species: 'Planet of the Apes' from Laughing Stock to Box Office Gold

After the best-selling novel La Planète des Singes and the hit film Planet of the Apes, the series found itself in hairy times. How did the saga regain its glory?

Caesar at War in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

The Apes Shall Rise Again

"The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise. Your breed made a desert of it, ages ago.

-- Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) in Planet of the Apes (1968)

Last time in the pages of The Next Reel we discussed the amazing beginnings of the saga that would quickly be known as Planet of the Apes. That saga rose amazingly to win critical acclaim, commercial success and plenty of awards, including a special achievement Oscar.

But after the acclaimed best-selling novel La Planète des Singes (1963) and the startling hit film Planet of the Apes (1968), the series repeatedly found itself in hairy times with very few sequels and spinoffs achieving the commercial or critical success of the media that started it all. The final filmed portions of the saga were of series star Roddy McDowall reprising his Galen role for wrap-around remembrances of the events of reedited TV episodes aired on ABC-owned stations.

That said, even after the declining quality of later sequels and the failure of the two television shows in the saga, Planet of the Apes was kept alive in merchandising. This survival was including and especially notable in comic books, which were produced almost every year from the time of the first film’s release, starting with the first gridded page adaptations from Japan.

Saru no Gundan (1974)

These Japanese comics surely helped pave the way for the Japanese television show Saru no Gundan (1974) (or Army of the Apes), which was heavily based on the American Planet of the Apes films, as well as the original Boulle novel, though the author and inspiration seem to have remained uncredited. Eschewing (for once) the crashed astronaut premise, Saru no Gundan centers around a scientist and two students who time travel to a future where apes evolved from men only to find a single human rebel still fighting the simian overlords.

Time of the Apes (1987)

Army of the Apes featured a more technological (and obviously militaristic) Ape future, somewhat closer (in that respect) to Boulle’s original vision. Army of the Apes was later re-edited for American audiences as the feature film Time of the Apes (1987). While it’s easy to make jokes about Army of the Apes for its obvious theme theft, the Japanese program did last 30 episodes (more than the two American Planet of the Apes TV shows combined). Time of the Apes, on the other hand, has the dubious distinction of being featured in two different episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K).

MST3K (1988 - 1999) later created its own simian semi-spoof of the Planet of Apes series in the character of “Professor Bobo” (Kevin Murphy, who first portrayed the character in 1997’s 8th season). Bobo is an eminent scientist who frequently reverts to his more primitive ape-like mannerisms and proves to be among the most dense of the series’ host segment characters, in spite of his professorial title. Bobo falls in with the villainous Mrs. Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl) (whom he calls “Lawgiver”) after his ape brethren (who, unlike their Beneath the Planet of the Apes counterparts live in harmony with their human mutant neighbors) set off an atomic bomb with the help of star (and head writer) Mike Nelson… thus destroying Bobo’s entire planet. Nelson presumably felt worse about this than George Taylor (Charlton Heston) did.

"A Fish Called Selma" (The Simpsons)

Shortly before Bobo’s debut, The Simpsons both paid tribute to the original Planet of the Apes movie series and mocked its then-current standing in society in the 1996 episode “A Fish Called Selma”. In the episode, perennial failed actor Troy McClure (Phil Hartman) attempts to restart his career in the (thankfully fictional) “brand-new multi-million dollar musical” Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want To Get Off. This “legitimate theater” gem features such lines as “I hate every ape I see, from Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z!” and “I love you Dr. Zaius!” Hey, it may not have been what Planet of the Apes fans were clamoring for, but this sequence helped make “A Fish Called Selma” one of the funniest Simpsons episodes of all time.

With Galen’s final flashback wrap-arounds having filmed in 1980, the non-canonical Time of the Apes releasing in 1987, McClure’s folly wrapping in 1996 and the Bobo spoof popping up between 1997 and MST3k’s cancellation in 1999, very little of the original saga was seen. The Sci-Fi channel (which also aired MST3K’s final three seasons) aired both of the television shows, although neither rounded out an entire season.

The one exception was a very well-done documentary called Behind the Planet of the Apes (1998) as hosted by McDowall (who sadly passed away less than one month after the feature-length program aired on the AMC network). AMC’s airing of this documentary coincided with their promotion of the entire Planet of the Apes film series, which began airing at the same time Behind the Planet of the Apes debuted. This cleaned up and uninterrupted bow for the film saga helped to inspire more interest in the franchise and reminded audiences that Planet of the Apes started out as no laughing matter.

Partially due to the success of these airings and the new public interest in the franchise, Fox finally pushed the long dormant Planet of the Apes reboot (which had been languishing in development hell in many different forms since 1988) into production. With the (usually) unassailable Tim Burton hired to direct, Danny Elfman brought in for the score, Rick Baker providing the special makeup effects and a star-studded cast that featured Tim Roth, Michael Clarke Duncan, Estella Warren, Paul Giamatti, Kris Kristofferson, David Warner and Mark Wahlberg (not to mention cameo appearances by Heston and Linda Harrison) both fans and new viewers were sure to be astounded.

They were not.

What went wrong? Baker is not only among the most skilled and brilliant makeup artists of all time, but specifically had copious experience creating ape makeup. Baker had previously created the ape makeup for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), Gorillas in the Mist (1988) and Mighty Joe Young (1998). Baker, himself, portrayed the title character in the 1976 King Kong film in makeup and costume of his own design. Burton’s track record with taking the weird and implausible and turning it all into the (semi-)realistic and believable seemed to make him a perfect choice and the cast filled with both consistent crowd pleasers and flavors of the month as its stars seemed to make for a film that couldn’t lose.

Planet of the Apes (2001) had one of the first promotional campaigns to popularize the word “reimagining” as opposed to “remake”. A remake this was not. Former rapper and underwear model Wahlberg was not to strap on Heston’s loin cloth and scream “It’s a Madhouse” or “Get your filthy paws off me you damned dirty ape!” Warren was not mute (nor were the rest of the humans) and the planet of the title was not the one audiences familiar with the history of the franchise would have expected.

Instead, Wahlberg portrays astronaut Leo Davidson who works with intelligent apes on a space station called Oberon and accidentally travels into the far future where his tiny space pod (drumroll) crash lands on a planet where intelligent humanoid apes are the cruel overlords of the more primitive humans. Interestingly, they all speak English.

That’s a fascinating (and quite familiar) plot so far and the makeup and prosthetics were excellent as expected so what, pray tell, went wrong?

Spoiler Alert: The planet of the title is not Earth, but some other weird planet where the smart apes from the Oberon (which, unlike Leo’s pod, was not pushed forward in time) rebelled against their humans after crashing into this planet, thus explaining how the apes evolved and why everybody speaks English.

When Astronaut Leo returns to Earth to warn his people, he is greeted by Earth’s own new master race of apes, as signified by the fact that the Lincoln Memorial has been replaced by a statue in honor of Tim Roth’s chimpanzee General Thade! How the hell this manages to have happened is never really explained, even by Burton, who left this cliffhanger to be answered in future sequels and even admitted that the ending was not supposed to make sense. Not even Thade himself can make sense of this ambiguous finalé with Roth quoted as saying “I cannot explain that ending. I have seen it twice and I don't understand anything.”

Helena Bonham Carter and Paul Giamatti
in Planet of the Apes (2001)

As to the prospect of said sequels, although Giamatti, Helena Bonham Carter and Wahlberg said they would return for sequels, Burton’s response was “I’d rather jump out a window!” That said (Thade statue aside) the ending of the 2001 Planet of the Apes is remarkably similar to the ending of the original novel, so it’s got that going for it.

Sadly, Wahlberg had turned down the role of Linus in Ocean’s Eleven (2001), that would have reprised in that film’s sequels, in order to make Planet of the Apes. Linus was eventually played by Matt Damon in all three films.

Even worse, Roth turned down the role of Professor Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) to portray Thade, thus opening the door for Alan Rickman to play the role in eight blockbuster movies.

Was it all worth it? While the film was nominated for several awards (including BAFTAs and Grammies), it was also nominated for multiple Razzie awards and although Planet of the Apes was ultimately a financial success (“earning” over $360 million against a budget of $100 million) Fox elected not to make any sequels to its ambitious reimagining in the face of intense critical disdain. In short, Burton and company did more damage to the Planet of the Apes (both planets) than Heston’s Taylor had done with that Doomsday bomb!

By the way, if you think that’s something, you should read about the Planet of the Apes films they almost made!

Thus Planet of the Apes needed time to cool off before the franchise was to be approached again. It took a full decade before another Planet of the Apes film was to grace movie theaters. Interestingly, due in part to the re-stigmatization of the franchise, the film we eventually got, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) did not start out as a Planet of the Apes film at all.

Enter the writing team of Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, a married couple who had achieved some notable successes throughout the '90s. In 2006,Jaffa went searching for a new screenplay idea to propel the duo (back?) onto the A-List. After reading newspaper stories about “domesticated” chimpanzees growing up and becoming troublesome and violent toward their humans (unable to adapt to their more human habitat) he came up with an idea he called Genesis. Genesis was the story of a genetically engineered chimpanzee who was raised in a human home and taught sign language before revealing his evil side and using his advanced intellect to rebel.

It wasn’t long before Silver and Jaffa recognized that the logical progression of such a story would result in the ape revolution witnessed in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Instead of simply throwing their hands in the air and screaming “It’s been done, dammit!”, the couple got smart and approached Fox with their idea for a new origin story for Planet of the Apes that could fit in with the 1968 film and stand on its own as a self-contained piece (should the eventual production face a similar fate to the 2001 film).

Fox loved the idea and the franchise was set to be reborn with a new cast and direction, this time set in modern times. With a budget of $93 million, a capable director in Rupert Wyatt and yet another star studded cast, Fox was certainly prepared to try the franchise on for size.

However, the idea of executing this ambitious new beginning with more actors in ape suits proved to be unfitting for a film about real chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas. Thus CGI was chosen to represent the simian cast with motion capture used to make every performance as real and thoughtful as possible. Much as Baker had previously portrayed King Kong in the 1976 film, Andy Serkis had also portrayed King Kong (via motion capture) in the 2005 remake (along with a plethora of other virtual characters). Thus, Serkis was hired to portray the new version of Caesar.

Although ostensibly based on McDowall’s Caesar character with his rise and rebellion, Serkis’ Caesar is very much his own realistic character who steals the show from the “real” actors on screen. This is no small task, considering the cast is packed with stars like James Franco, John Lithgow, Freida Pinto, Brian Cox, David Hewlett and Tom Felton. While the original Caesar inherited his intelligence from his parents (members of the already evolved ape race), the new Caesar inherits his own from his mother, a test subject for a new drug that can cure Alzheimer’s and improve the intelligence of its patients… especially apes like Caesar.

Silver, Jaffa and Wyatt also packed the film with nods to the original series that go far beyond the naming of the central character. In less skilled hands, these “Easter eggs” could have come off as merely a cute collection of one-liners meant to appease fans of the original saga and fill up the movie’s Trivia page. Amazingly everything seems to fit within the film’s own story and forms the right balance between homage and original plot point (never falling into the realm of parody).

Caesar’s mother (in this film) is called “Bright Eyes,” just as Taylor had been nicknamed “Bright Eyes” by Zira (Caesar’s mother in the original films). Will Rodman (Franco), who gives her the name, goes on to raise Caesar in her stead, much as Armando (Ricardo Montalbán) raised the original Caesar after Zira’s death. Taylor’s (surviving) ship mates in the original film were named “Dodge” and “Landon”. In the 2011 film a character named Dodge Landon (Felton) actually does speak the lines “It’s a Madhouse” and “Get your filthy paws off me you damned dirty ape!” One of the apes in the film is named “Cornelia”, a portmanteau of Caesar’s original series parents’ names Cornelius and Zira.

The list of visual and verbal clues goes on and on and on (worthy of an article of its own) but one of the most interesting and compelling involves the mission of a space ship called Icarus. Although the ship Taylor and crew crash landed in the Forbidden Zone is never actually named in the film, fans have, for years, referred to the ship as the Icarus. Rise of the Planet of the Apes includes news footage of the Icarus’ maiden voyage on a mission of space exploration. Before the close of the film a brief scene reveals that the Icarus has been lost in space.

Savvy fans may speculate that this is, in fact, the same ship that carries Taylor and crew and it disappears on its way to the plot of the 1968 film. So is Rise of the Planet of the Apes a reboot or a prequel? The answer is “yes”. Does that kill the concept of the original series’ temporal cul-de-sac? That depends entirely on the time travel hypothesis you prescribe to, true believers.

Spoiler Alert: Unfortunately, the viral wonder drug that cures Alzheimer’s and increases cognitive abilities doesn’t quite have that effect on every human being and as the virus spreads throughout the world (thanks to its infection of an international airline pilot) the apes all get smarter while the majority of the human race is completely wiped out. Hail Caesar!

Unlike the previous few entries in the franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a near-unanimous critical success, earning rave reviews unsurpassed by any save the 1968 film. The film was also a huge surprise hit at the box office earning almost $55 million in its opening weekend and going on to gross over $480 million worldwide. All of this against a budget of $93 million, a lower amount than that of the 2001 film’s $100 million. Might I say that sequels are warranted? Might I add: rightly so.

Of course, surprise hit or not, a new series was the intent of Jaffa and Silver when they wrote the film. With unanswered questions, hints for the future and tight storytelling, Rise of the Planet of the Apes laid the platform for a new saga and was nothing if not “sequel bait”. This, of course, would lead to more cash lining the pockets of the wedded writing duo. Wyatt was likewise enthusiastic about creating a sequel to the hit reboot to the classic series.

Before Rise of the Planet of the Apes had even left the dollar cinemas, Serkis was announced as having accepted the role of Caesar in the sequel (reportedly for millions of dollars). In 2012 Silver and Jaffa’s script was accepted (with re-writes by Scott Z. Burns) and Fox announced a May 2014 release date. Fearing that he would not be able to make the film he envisioned in the amount of time allotted, Wyatt balked and walked to be replaced by Matt Reeves of Cloverfield (2008) fame. Wyatt’s departure marked the departure of Franco from the project and Reeves’ hiring of Mark Bomback to perform another rewrite seemed to signal a bit of chaos on the ape front.

No returning stars (save the CGI Caesar), a shorter schedule, a ballooning budget (to $170 million), a new director and multiple script rewrites? Was the upcoming film already a shambles? Surely Dawn of the Planet of the Apes could never equal the amazing successes of its predecessor Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

“Equal” the successes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes did not. Finally released on 11 July 2014, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was an immediate and incredible box office money-maker, pulling in $73 million in its first weekend and topping the charts easily (with almost 40 percent of its revenue coming from more expensive 3D showings which proves an audience’s faith in a spectacular film).

Critical praise is often a different story from box office success (see Michael Bay’s Transformers films… or better yet, don’t). How has Dawn of the Planet of the Apes fared with critics? To say that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has done “remarkably well” would be a King Kong-sized understatement. Critics almost unanimously agree that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has exceeded Rise of the Planet of the Apes in every way and according to, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the only film in the entire franchise to earn better reviews than the original Planet of the Apes.

Taking many cues from the final film in the original series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes concerns the decimated Earth with Caesar leading his apes and often clashing with bands of surviving humans in the post-apocalyptic world that they share. Caesar’s love interest makes an appearance here (now named “Cornelia” if that sounds familiar) and Caesar truly starts to live up to his name.

Spoiler Alert: At the time of this writing, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is still in theatrical release, so I’m not offering any spoilers except the following: The ending of the movie includes a fade to credits.

While it remains to be seen whether Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will outgross Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the current box office tally shows a rapid race to that finish, but the budget was also almost twice that of the prior film), a sequel has already been commissioned with Reeves at the helm as well as co-writing with Bomback. The current working title is, simply, Planet of the Apes and the film is set for a 2016 release.

Thus, this is hardly the ending of the story that Pierre Boulle started over 51 years ago, before even the Beatles became a mania. And while Planet of the Apes and its followers may have been something of a laughing matter for a short while, it is clear that this is no longer the case, as the franchise does not merely survive, but evolves. It may still evolve into something of a “madhouse”.

Regardless of the future or even the rocky past of the Planet of the Apes saga, the present is one mighty gift to movie fans. So until the Icarus crashes back onto a lovely California beach and out pops a resurrected Heston mutated into an ape intent on nuking the new franchise with his doomsday bomb (perhaps creating a temporal cul-de-sac of our own), I’ll see you all in the Next Reel!

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