‘Rise’ and ‘Conquest’: The Dual Geneses of ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’
This article contains spoilers for War for the Planet of the Apes, and the Apes franchise as a whole.
When Planet of the Apes was released in 1968, science fiction was not viewed in a favorable light. Regarded as a fringe genre, or as something primarily for children, it often took a backseat to grand spectacle, for example in the sword-and-sandal or musical genres. Twentieth Century Fox was suffering financially from a series of big-budget bombs when they released Apes, and the movie became a surprise hit. Despite the fact that, at that time, sequels always resulted in diminishing returns, the studio struck while the iron was hot and ordered Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which went on to enjoy a similar level of success.
These two films accomplished several things: they proved there was an audience for sci-fi at the cinema, and – in a world where Star Trek was struggling to find its audience on television and Star Wars was barely a gleam in young George Lucas‘s eye – they set a standard for what a science fiction franchise could and should be. They introduced us to a world conquered by talking apes… and then they destroyed it.
Let’s Do the Time Warp Again
The fact that Earth is blown up at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes made things difficult when Fox wanted yet another sequel. Paul Dehn, who had co-written Beneath, conceived an ingenious, original idea that seems commonplace in this modern world of cinematic superheroes: he rebooted his franchise, for a third, fourth, and fifth film.
Time travel was part of the Apes franchise from the very beginning, with George Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his crew traveling into the future to discover ape civilization. (The twist, of course, is that the planet is – gasp! – Earth itself.) In Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Dehn was able to make the clever jump of having two beloved characters from the first film – the chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira, portrayed by Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter – travel back in time to a point before humanity fell from grace. Their arrival in Earth’s past sets up a chain of events that ushers in the ape-pocalypse, as it were.
Zira, it seems, is pregnant. Though both she and Cornelius are killed, their son, Milo, survives, safely harbored in a traveling circus. Fast forward 18 years to 1991 and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and much of what Cornelius prophesied about the rise of the apes is coming to fruition: The world’s dogs and cats went extinct in 1986. When that happened, people began taking primates as pets…which quickly evolved into a form of slavery, as it was discovered how well the apes could accomplish many tasks that would be far beyond canines and felines.
Milo – now named Caesar, as he took the place of a young chimp in the circus to disguise his identity – already finds the plight of his simian brethren impossible to bear. When his friend Armando (Ricardo Montalban), who raised him from infancy in the circus, is murdered, Caesar snaps, and ignites a revolt that becomes the turning point in man vs. ape.
The time travel in Escape seems to make the Planet of the Apes a self-fulfilling prophecy, yet what Paul Dehn has actually done is reboot the franchise in a way that is much more common in cinema today. For example, Terminator Genisys used its franchise’s well-worn trope of time travel to erase its third and fourth movies, and pick up where Terminator 2: Judgment Day left off. 2009’s Star Trek had characters arriving from the future to drastically alter events for Captain Kirk and his fellow protagonists, thus creating a new timeline that could ignore events from the franchise’s past history.
When Escape from the Planet of the Apes came along, the idea of a “reboot” was not at all a thing. (James Bond had been recast once, but the franchise quickly ran back to Sean Connery for Diamonds Are Forever, and those movies – just standalone adventures, for the most part – are not really the same kind of animal anyway. No pun intended.) The idea that Escape resulted in a new, altered timeline is reinforced by the fifth and final of the original films, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, which has Caesar looking for a way for apes and humans to live in harmony – an idea which seems to take hold, as evidenced by book-ending scenes set in the far future with the ape Lawgiver (John Huston).
It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
Meanwhile, when Rise of the Planet of the Apes arrived in 2011, it truly was a reboot of the Apes franchise, yet it took a far more standard “prequel” route than the original Apes sequels.
It’s obvious in Rise that the eventual endgame is the first Planet of the Apes film, with Charlton Heston arriving from the past to discover a planet ruled by talking apes and gorillas on horseback. (In fact, a news story covering the mission of the Icarus – Taylor’s ship – can be seen in Rise.)
Time travel, however, is completely eschewed in the modern Apes films, in favor of a more straight-ahead telling of humanity’s downfall and apes’ eventual reign. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the first ape to speak and to stand up against his human oppressors, earns his heightened intelligence from an experimental drug, ALZ-112, intended as a potential cure for Alzheimer’s and administered to his mother, Bright Eyes, just before his birth. The next iteration of the drug, ALZ-113, goes viral and begins to kill human beings, while Caesar deliberately exposes it to apes and raises an army.
Ten years after the “Simian Flu” has killed of a large segment of humanity, we catch up with Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Human survivors need access to the apes’ territory in the woods, in order to restore functionality to a hydroelectric dam that will power San Francisco. Caesar attempts a peaceful resolution, but animosities on both sides prevent true cooperation, and Caesar’s lieutenant, Koba (Toby Kebbell), makes an attempt on Caesar’s life, both to seize power and to shift ape distrust onto the humans. All-out war is barely averted when Caesar kills Koba.
Fast forward five years to War for the Planet of the Apes, and Caesar is still haunted by Koba’s death. The apes are also hunted by a military regiment commanded by the rogue Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), with nothing less than extermination on his agenda. He’s targeting Caesar, but when he slaughters the ape leader’s wife and son instead, it sets Caesar on a dangerous vendetta.
War sets the final pieces in place to bring the franchise full circle: apes who are not part of Caesar’s band are learning to talk, and the humans that remain will fall as the simian flu mutates to strike them dumb. At last, we see how we arrived at the original Planet of the Apes.
Or do we?
Too Much Monkey Business
There’s plenty of evidence that – despite a complete lack of time travel – the modern trilogy exists in yet another parallel timeline. First and foremost, humanity obviously didn’t achieve manned interstellar travel in the 1970s. There’s no mention of a disease wiping out dogs and cats; no indication that there will be human survivors who mutate and begin living in the subterranean levels of blasted-out cities, as in Beneath; indeed, no mention at all of the nuclear holocaust that seems to be one of the key moments in Planet of the Apes history. Most telling, though, is the testament given by Cornelius in Escape: it would be several hundred years before apes rose up against humans, and the first ape to take a stand and say “no” would be named Aldo… not Caesar.
In point of fact, the “true” origin of Planet of the Apes has never been witnessed, and perhaps that is for the best. The franchise has already created two engaging alternate timelines; there’s no need to try and explicitly connect the missing dots.
So what’s next for the franchise? War for the Planet of the Apes is a pretty perfect trilogy finisher, like Return of the Jedi or Toy Story 3… but Star Wars is currently enjoying indefinite longevity, and Toy Story 4 is in production. Caesar’s arc may have come to a definitive end, but there’s no reason more stories couldn’t be told in this universe with different characters. A remake of the original seems plausible, but hopefully the studio will leave that idea well enough alone. They’ve already tried it.
Apes did the reboot right once, and then, unfortunately, dropped the ball. But the third time was the charm. As it was in the beginning, so it is now at the end: this is how you do a franchise reboot, folks.