A brief history of Fox’s totally bananas attempts to reboot ‘Planet of the Apes’

Think this looks bananas? Wait 'til you see all the failed reboots it took to get to this point.
Image: 20th Century Fox

Who knew a reboot of Planet of the Apes could work so well? 20th Century Fox did but it took them almost 25 years to prove it.

War for the Planet of the Apes rides a wave of highly positive reviews into theaters this weekend, capping off a success story that began two films ago with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. However, the road between 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes and 2011’s Rise was a rocky one full of false starts and dead ends.

If theres a lesson to be learned here its that if at first you dont succeed, try, try again. And then again.

Planet of the Apes was a familiar name, the type of brand recognition movie producers dream of. All Fox had to do was find a way to bring the Apes back from oblivion. It wouldnt be easy. Here’s a look back at all the crazy winding paths they took to get here.

Spartacus with apes

So, this, but with apes.

Image: Bryna / Universal

Debuting in 1963, the original Planet of the Apes yielded four sequels that would become an exercise in diminishing returns. The last of those, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, hit theaters in 1973. While that could’ve served as the end for the franchise, thoughts of resurrecting the Apes didn’t remain dormant for long.

In 1988, 21-year-old filmmaker Adam Rifkin had only one credit to his name (the now-forgotten Never on Tuesday), yet he was able to convince 20th Century Fox president Craig Baumgarten to let him make a new Apes film. As detailed in David Hughes’ Tales From Development Hell, Rifkin didnt want to reboot the series, but rather continue the story with a new sequel.

It would be Spartacus with apes, Rifkin said, with the film revealing the ape world had reached its Roman era. A descendant of Taylor [Charlton Hestons character from the first film] would eventually lead a human slave revolt against the oppressive Roman-esque apes. A real sword-and-sandal spectacular, monkey-style.

Tom Cruise and Charlie Sheen were soon being considered for the human lead, and Rifkins script, Return to the Planet of the Apes, was put on the fast track. I turned in the script and the studio loved it! Rifkin later said. Unfortunately, pre-production was about to start when suddenly and quite unceremoniously the studio head [Baumgarten] was fired.

Baumgartens replacements didnt share Rifkins vision, and rewrites werent enough to salvage the film in 20th Century Foxs eyes.

The Apes were once again resigned to the dust.

Renaissance Apes

Just think: In some alternate universe, Peter Jackson is famous for Apes, not Tolkien.

Image: Wingnut / Kobal

In 1992, Peter Jackson had yet to become the mega-director that The Lord of the Rings franchise would transform him into, and was still working his way up from low-budget gorefests like Dead Alive. After learning of the still-gestating Apes relaunch from his agent, Jackson and his wife and writing partner Fran Walsh began putting together a script treatment.

We imagined [the ape] world being in the midst of an artistic renaissance, which made the ape government very nervous, Jackson said in his biography. We wanted Roddy McDowall [who played Cornelius in the original Planet of the Apes and Caesar in 1972s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes] to play an elderly chimpanzee that we based a little on Leonardo da Vinci.

Jackson and Walsh pitched their idea to producer Harry J. Ufland, who in turn took it to his close friend Joe Roth, chairman of 20th Century Fox. All systems seemed go, but just as with Rifkins take on the material, a regime change signaled a death knell for the project. Roth left Fox, and head of production Tom Jacobson had absolutely no interest in Jackson and Walshs idea.

The Apes were dead, again, and the world was sadly denied the chance to meet an ape Leonardo da Vinci.

Non-circular time Apes

Time is a flat circle and all that.

Image: Zade Rosenthal / Columbia Tristar

In 1993, producers Don Murphy and Jane Hamsher were working with controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone on Natural Born Killers when they brought Stone a potential new project: a remake of Planet of the Apes. Stone, in a period of crafting highly-charged political films, seemed an unlikely fit. On top of that, the JFK filmmaker thought the original Apes films were … well, awful.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Stone came up with a bold new idea that involved intelligent apes of the past inscribing a code in the Bible that predicted all of the events of history. As Hughes puts it in Tales From Development Hell, the idea was that time would be “circular, not linear, with no difference between the past and the future.”

A Planet of the Apes featuring secret Bible codes doesnt sound like standard studio blockbuster fare, but Fox went for it, and Stone enlisted The Road Warrior writer Terry Hayes to pen the script. Return of the Apes featured a scientist escaping a plague-ridden future and returning to a past where apes were highly intelligent scientists who implanted the plague into human DNA, like a timebomb, some time during the Stone Age.

It was a weird, wild, ultraviolent script that also included a steampunk flamethrower tank. To make it just a little extra goofy, there were several elements lifted right from The Lord of the Rings in the script, including a character named Aragorn.

Although the idea sprang from Stones warped mind, he would serve strictly as an executive producer, entrusting directorial duties to Clear and Present Danger helmer Phillip Noyce. Stone was able to sign on Arnold Schwarzenegger as the time-traveling scientist, and the film was approved for a $100 million budget. The stars finally seemed to be aligning for a new Planet of the Apes.

And then it all fell apart.

What killed the Apes this time were arguments over the scripts tone. Some producers thought what this strange, violent movie needed was some light-hearted comedy, including a scene where Schwarzeneggers character teaches the apes how to play baseball. The film withered as a result.

Ape Caligula

Imagine James Cameron directing an ape Caligula … or, you know, don’t.

Image: SNAP

After Fox gave up on Terry Hayes script, they approached future Harry Potter director Chris Columbus to helm the film from a new script written by Batman Returns screenwriter Sam Hamm. The project never went beyond make-up tests.

Charlton Hestons character was alive and well, living as a survivalist gun nut in the woods

James Cameron was next tapped to take over a new Apes project, but he was interested only in writing it not directing. He came up with an idea that involved (according to an anonymous leak) a simian Caligula character, as well as a third-act twist revealing that Charlton Hestons character from the first film was alive and well, living as a survivalist gun nut somewhere deep in the woods.

Once again, studio interference stalled and eventually killed the project. [The] thing I’ve learned is that when you deal with a studio and it’s their asset … it’s their asset, Cameron later said. And I should have learned that lesson with Planet of the Apes because I had a great idea, but it was Fox’s asset. Even though I was supposedly developing it, we didn’t see eye to eye, and they sort of picked up their marbles and that was that.

Tim Burton’s Apes

Remember this?

Image: 20th Century Fox / Zanuck Co.

After eight years of stop-and-start monkey business, Fox mightve been wise to pull the plug entirely and abandon the Planet of the Apes. But that brand recognition was hard to pass up. We see the potential for a big movie, said Foxs then-studio president Bill Mechanic. It wont get to the screen by the most linear path, but its going to get made.

And it did, thanks to goth filmmaker extraordinaire Tim Burton, who envisioned his film not so much as a remake as a re-imagining.

Borrowing elements from the original film as well as several concepts cherry-picked from the various failed attempts, Burtons Apes was visually interesting what Burton film isn’t? but is now considered one of Hollywood’s most cringey misfires.

“A campy, juiced-up ker-splat, busy with clumsy pyrotechnics and never nearing the vicinity of satire,” wrote The Village Voice, just one of many voices to cry out in agony over this version starring Mark Wahlberg as the visiting astronaut.

Ironically enough, after Fox spent 13 years to get to this point, Burton would blame the films failures on a rushed production. Burtons Planet of the Apes was a financial success, but not enough to continue the franchise.

After all that work bringing the Apes back, the franchise was deceased yet again, for another 10 years.

Apes into the future

Where it all began (again).

Image: 20th Century Fox

Fox found a way to bring the primates back again in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The road to Rise was less fraught than the lead-up to Burtons take, with Fox planting the seed for a new reboot in 2008.

These new Apes would be new and improved, and Peter Jackson returned, in a way, to much ceremony: While the other films relied on complex makeup, Rise benefited from the assistance of motion-capture wizardry courtesy of Jacksons Weta Digital VFX.

Rise launched a whole franchise that’s continued into this weekend’s War for the Planet of the Apes. The new series is thoughtfully constructed the films are deeper and more cerebral than most modern blockbusters, the effects continue to stun.

The big question now is: how long will it last? And when it inevitably ends, how long will it take Fox to reboot it again? War for the Planet of the Apes may or may not be the last film in its series (director Matt Reeves is already talking about future films), yet the law of diminishing returns all but guarantees that this new series will run out of steam eventually. And War concludes in a way that could make it a natural endpoint.

At which point the Apes will lay dormant for another period time (maybe even another 20-some years full of false starts) before they start up again. Perhaps Oliver Stone was right after all: time isnt linear but circular. What goes around comes around.

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