Return to the Planet of the Apes By Mike White. The first of January, the year 2000. Power outages abound, chaos ensues, and, above the din of the rioting crowds, the sound of horns can be heard in the distance...
The first of January, the year 2000. Power outages abound, chaos ensues, and, above the din of the rioting crowds, the sound of horns can be heard in the distance. The hunt is on. Joining with the triumphant trumpeting is the clatter of hooves. The Apes gloriously gallop into our barbaric cities to claim their birthright. Gunshots ring out, nets are cast... Now is the time for Apes to rule!
All of the paranoia surrounding the "Millennium Bug" has kept The Planet of the Apes at the forefront of my consciousness. The bleak picture concerning worldwide devastation that some irresponsible journalists have painted of what awaits the world after the ball drops in Times Square at the end of ’99 includes adobe huts and flint-tipped spears. So why not Apes as well? If the apes are going to strike, they couldn’t ask for a better time.
The same goes for a new motion picture with an ape theme. Word has been floating around Hollywood for years about a remake of Planet of the Apes and screenplays by Sam Hamm and Terry Hayes substantiate these rumours. However, neither of these writers’ visions of a new Apes film appears to be on the horizon. That’s probably for the best.
Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes left an indelible impression on American popular culture. Based on the 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle, French author of Bridge Over the River Kwai, the original Apes film spawned—among other things—a series of films, a television show, comic books, action figures, and an animated series.
In his novel, Boulle spins a tale of Ulysse M√?¬©rou, an earthling journalist serving as part of a crew on an experimental journey to a planet orbiting Betelgeuse. Accompanying Professor Antelle are his assistant Arthur Levain and their chimpanzee, Hector. The crew travel two years at nearly the speed of light while three and a half centuries pass on their home planet.
After landing without a hitch, they dub this new land Soror (Latin for "sister") as it is indeed terra familiaris. Here they find mute and primitive humans who take their clothes and kill their monkey. It is with great distress that they discover that the planet’s ruling species are anthropomorphic apes.
Our protagonist, Ulysse is modeled after Homer’s Odysseus, conqueror of Troy and conceiver of the Trojan horse. Meanwhile, the chimp Hector recalls the Trojan warrior slain by Achilles. In Boulle’s tale, Nova—the first primitive human the earthmen encounter—strangles poor Hector with animal intensity. Boulle employs subtlety in his symbolism as well as he does in his social commentary.
The culture of the apes is such that there are three tiers of social classes to which each of the three species of apes belong. Gorillas are the hunters, warriors, and police—the proletariat exploited for their muscle. Chimpanzees make up the intellectual and bullied middle class while orangutans occupy positions of pomp and power as the bourgeoisie.
Amazingly, Michael Wilson and Rod Serling’s screen adaptation is faithful, if often only in spirit, to the original source material. It’s true that Boulle’s apes are far more advanced than those of the film’s; driving cars and flying airplanes instead of riding horseback and walking unpaved streets as if to show them more as a society on the verge of industrialization. The state of ape advancement can also be attributed to their origins: they have had to rebuild an entire world after its former civilization was lost.
The lone surviving astronaut in the film is Taylor (Charlton Heston) who, like Ulysse, is captured by Gorillas out on a hunt. However, Taylor loses his ability to speak after being shot in the throat. Stripped of his clothes and voice, he has lost all outward symbols of difference between himself and the savage homo sapiens.
The moment in which Taylor speaks is a revelation on par with Ulysse’s stirring speech to attendees of a scientific congress. By speaking, both protagonists reveal their intelligence and ability to communicate. Yet, for this Taylor is condemned while Ulysse is given a new lease on life.
Ulysse’s acceptance into ape society along with Nova’s pregnancy (and the danger her loquacious baby represents) would later be cleverly used in the third apes film, Escape From The Planet of the Apes but with chimpanzees, Cornelius and Zira in the limelight and peril. Escape From... also holds a tale of the apes’ ascent into power that’s markedly dissimilar to that of either the first Apes film or Boulle’s book.
Like Ulysse’s home planet, Soror was once dominated by human beings. In an odd, Jungian scene, Ulysse joins Cornelius in a laboratory where cerebral experiments conducted on human subjects have produced a means of tapping into the collective unconscious of the human race. In this way, Ulysse hears snippets of memories about the apes’ ascension.
Apparently, apes were trained as servants (as found in Conquest of The Planet of the Apes) and, eventually, became dissatisfied with their role in society; wanting something better. As time went on, the apes’ ability to mimic their human masters grew until some gained the power of speech. The first use they made of speech was to protest when they were given orders. Coupled with this surge of learning, a bout of "cerebral laziness" befell the human race making the conquering of this feeble species all the easier.
The most noticeable disparity between the two works is their final ironic twists. The book’s surprise ending comes when, after being jettisoned into space with Nova and his child, Ulysse returns to earth seven hundred years after he departed only to be greeted by a gorilla in full military regalia.
The film’s ending is a moment that surely had to have been conceived by Rod Serling. A typical Twilight Zone moment; Taylor discovers that he and his now-dead fellow astronauts traveled only in time but not location. Yes, Taylor is on Earth some hundreds of years after he departed. And, god damn it, the fools who ran the planet must have blown it up for there, along the beach, is the half-buried symbol of American freedom, the Statue of Liberty.
To date, the names of four writers have been linked with a new Planet of the Apes script. The first of these belongs to Terry Hayes. Adorned with "SCHWARZENEGGER" across the front of his screenplay, I’m not sure if Terry Hayes meant that Arnold Schwarzenegger should play the lead role but he would be completely miscast if so.
Babies around the globe are being delivered stillborn, threatening the future of the human race. Led by Billie Ray Diamond (a moniker better suited for a rhinestone-encrusted country and western singer than a brilliant woman scientist), the Center for Disease Control is aflutter with activity, trying to determine the cause. They’re looking for a viral answer—little do they know that the origins of the problem reside in a mutation of human DNA.
The man who figures it all out is but a lowly janitor, Will Robinson (an acknowledged Lost in Space reference). Of course, that’s not his real name. He’s actually Dr. Robert Plant (an unacknowledged Led Zeppelin reference), an expert on mitochondrial DNA, in hiding after his career was ruined during a past experiment that went awry and left his fianc√?¬© dead.
It hurts me to write this paragraph. The conceit of the film is so precarious that suspending my disbelief long enough to even relate it here is a strenuous task. The "logic" of the film dictates that if you can unlock the secret of mitochondiral DNA, "you could physically travel back down it. Through evolution—like a time machine." By submerging himself in a sensory deprivation flotation tank (think Altered States), time travelling is exactly what Plant does, going back one hundred and two thousand years in order to determine where the mutation occurred.
Once he’s in our primitive past, Plant discovers some savage humans who, lucky for him, speak fairly good English. The only difference between Plant and his fellow humans is his better posture and blue eyes. Within moments, there is a deafening thunder of hooves as they’re attacked. The apes have arrived!
Not quite advanced enough for guns or airplanes, these apes prefer crossbows and pulley-driven battering rams. Plant is captured by Drak: one mean gorilla (perhaps this is the role Schwarzenegger would play). Drak does such a good job of bashing Plant that when the human is taken back to ape city he’s put under the immediate care of Dr. Zora (this isn’t a misspelling—she’s named Zora instead of Zira as Cornelius’ medical mate has been known in every previous book/movie/script).
Under the command of Ma-Gog, the apes have a policy of "ethnic cleansing"—such a pleasant euphemism for genocide—to rid the planet of the scourge of man.
In Hayes’ ape-ruled world, there are only gorillas—no chimps or orangutans and thus no class conflict. Subsequently the story has less social commentary and is far less interesting. Instead, after quickly escaping captivity Plant interacts with his human brethren including Aragorn, the Ranger of the Easterlings, and Kip, leader of the Tiger Clan. With names like those I think we may have left the planet Earth and wandered somewhere into Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Reunited with a time-travelling Diamond (who hopes to save the unborn child in her womb), the two homo sapiens search for the girl to whom the Apes will give the future world-threatening mutagen. Indeed this is yet another ridiculous plot point in that the Apes can somehow infect a human female with something that will mutate our DNA thousands of years hence.
I’m not a religious man by any stretch of the imagination but even I was vaguely offended by the apes’ quoting of scripture and that the female "missing link" whom Plant and Diamond discover around page ninety is named Aiv (pronounced "Eve").
From here the script digresses even further as the humans fight the apes, run from the apes, and hide from the apes, stopping briefly for inane dialogue. Of course, Plant and Diamond put a stop to Ma-Gog’s attempt to corrupt Eve’s DNA and humanity is saved.
Having never found a method in which he could climb back up the evolutionary ladder and travel back to his own age, Plant and Diamond are stuck in the past. After Diamond’s successful birth, they know that the human race will survive. Then the viewer is presented with a completely ridiculous scene:
OUTSIDE THE CAVE:
Will and Eve help Diamond. She comes out of the cave, still holding the baby. It’s magic hour—they stand on a rock ledge, looking at the ocean washed with color from the setting sun.
We see what Will was building. Its sort of like a sculpture—just the head and crown of the Statue of Liberty.
Diamond smiles. She looks at him, wondering why—
It’s to make sure we never forget where we came from.
The baby starts to cry. Will puts one arm each around Diamond and Eve.
We pull back from them—high up into the stars. The baby’s cry carries over. We see earth rise. In all this nothingness—life.
Hayes just had to find a way to fit that Statue of Liberty thing in somehow and such he picked a completely asinine way of doing it!
In Escape from... and Conquest of... we are told that apes move into pet/servant positions after a plague killed the world’s dogs and cats. With deadly viruses being in vogue in the late nineties, it’s no wonder that this idea was used in Sam Hamm’s script. Yet, this time mankind is in danger of being wiped out by a deadly virus (as opposed to a rogue protein) brought to us courtesy of Planet Ape.
Again, babies are inflicted; living a maximum of three days once outside the womb. Enter Center for Disease Control hotshot, Dr. Susan Landis. As fast as she’s introduced, she’s secreted away to a hidden army base where she’s introduced to Dodge, Astor, Stewart and, her eventual love interest (and only other character with both first and last names), Alexander Troy (whose name is a roundabout nod to Ulysses). She’s shown a spaceship and the dead orangutan pilot that brought our planet this deadly virus. The orangutan’s mission: to poison humankind.
It’s up to the scientists to save us. They pilot the ship back to the ape’s home planet, orbiting Alpha Centauri. The journey takes six years for the crew while thirty-four years pass on earth. They hope to complete their mission and send back a cure before earth is bereft of fertile females.
Upon arrival, the story begins to feel familiar. Stewart is found dead in his cryogenic tube (not to worry, the poor chap only had two lines up to this point) and our heroes’ ship begins to sink. With the film’s accelerated pace, the earthmen soon encounter primitive, speechless humans and are subsequently attacked by apes. Like Boulle’s apes, these simians are quite advanced; sporting bazookas and traveling around in helicopters as they round up their prey.
Separated from their comrades, Susan and Troy find themselves placed in a zoo in Ape City. Here they meet the kindly chimpanzee zookeeper, Zira and the lecherous orangutan Lord Zaius (described as being "the Gordon Gecko of apes"). Outside the Zoological Research Institute, daily protests against animal cruelty are led by the rabble-rousing chimp, Cornelius. He and Zira are secretly in cahoots and the two of them have a hidden colony on the edge of the Forbidden Zone where they keep humans that exhibit better-than-average intelligence—selectively breeding them. The morality (or lack thereof) of this is never explored.
When they learn of Susan and Troy’s remarkable abilities, Zira and Cornelius plot to move them to their colony. Their plans run afoul when Troy is kidnapped by his gorilla handlers and placed in a gladiatorial ring to fight his old friend Dodge (who’s been turned into a savage courtesy of some ape brain surgery). Making a daring escape, Troy is picked up by Caius, a circus trainer. Meanwhile, safely hidden, Susan learns that she’s pregnant. Though Susan is our apparent protagonist, she drops out of the story for a while and is given a role insultingly similar to Nova.
Apparently, the circus is a big event to apes for it’s during an incredibly popular broadcast of his performance that Troy gives the same speech Ulysse presented to the scientific congress on Soror. Enjoying his stint as a popular freak, Troy and Lord Zaius engage in what earthlings might call as "pissing contest"; both of them trying to push the others’ buttons and find their weak spots. Susan’s life is threatened, Cornelius captured, and Zaius shows Troy the marvels of the Forbidden Zone including the multimedia center in which signals from earth are intercepted by satellite receivers and translated into simian culture. Thus, orangutans are seen as progenitors of culture.
In order to expedite their return home, Susan creates a disease that affects only the orangutans of Planet Ape. This is ironic as we have learned that it was humans who created the virus that effects Susan and Troy’s brethren on earth. Likewise, this disease rid Planet Ape of the majority of its high-tech human populace who traveled to earth some ten to twenty thousand years ago. Unaffected were only those with a chromosomal aberration which robs them of all "higher functions" such as speech.
To make a long story short—Hamm fills out the last act with a couple of useless action scenes—when Troy, Susan, and their child make their way back home on the aptly named ship, Bellerophon, they are greeted by apes in military regalia and find:
...Our old friend the Statue of Liberty, standing watch on her island pedestal. In the years since we last saw her, she’s undergone radical plastic surgery. For, as we can now see, her once-proud porcelain features have been crudely chiseled into the grotesque likeness of a great grinning ape.
With these convoluted tales of time and space travel, viruses and birth defects, Hayes and Hamm have taken the easy route of making their Apes tale more of a revisionist retelling of the first Apes film. Neither of these writers has had the courage, the creativity, the intelligence or the wherewithal to follow the story arc of the first five films wherein Taylor would return to a much different earth than the one in which he first arrived (as predicted by Battle For...).
In the three years since Hamm submitted his script to 20th Century Fox, occasional rumours of progress have sprung up and quickly squashed. Chronicling the stalled project often uncovers James Cameron’s name (which might explain the Arnold Schwarzenegger connection). It’s said that Cameron would make a new film as the sixth in the series. This would play into his penchant for circular time patterns as seen in his Terminator films and, hopefully, he would invigorate the series as he did with Alien. At the time this piece was written, there is a third screenplay that’s supposed to be floating around for an Apes film written by William Broyles for which Michael "Me Make Big Boom!" Bay is being sought as a director. A fourth, non-related screenplay penned by David Eli Bullington is also said to exist and has been oddly described as "Willy Wonka meets Star Wars."
Article revised and available in the Impossibly Funky Collection