The Lost Planet of the Apes

April 21, 2011

After enjoying the hell out of the trailer for Rise of the Planet of the Apes — a movie I knew little about, hadn’t heard was coming and expected to be crap, because the only thing less believable than Mark Wahlberg as an astronaut is James Franco as a brilliant scientist — I started thinking about my 40 years of Ape Love.

The first movie is one of my favourite films. The sequels are fun (Escape holds a special place for me). I liked the TV series. And I loved the Mego figures. I even enjoy the 2001 reboot for what it is: awful, but hairy, with Paul Giamatti and Helena Bonham Carter, kind of like a weird sex dream I had once.

This new film, which turns everything on its wrinkly brown chimp ear, got me thinking about other Apes projects that never quite made it, like the Arnold Schwarzenegger version, or the one with Charlie Sheen, or the Oliver Stone adaptation. I am not making any of that up, although I did have to Google “Schwarzenegger” yet again.

In 1988, director Adam Rifkin was offered the chance to pick a dream project. He picked Apes. His script, Return to the Planet of the Apes, was an alternate sequel to the first movie, one that ignored Beneath, Escape From, Conquest Of and Battle For. Return featured a descendant of Charlton Heston leading a rebellion against the apes during their “Roman period.” Think of it as Baboon-Hur. Charlie Sheen was in talks to play the lead (After Tom Cruise said no) but studio interference, including a demand for more comedy elements, kiboshed the deal. As one writer said at the time, “Rifkin wrote a Terminator, they wanted a Flintstones.”

The same thing would happen a few years later when another reboot was written, this time linked to Oliver Stone. This one, Return of the Apes, the script of which is available online, was even weirder than the Burton version: a brilliant scientist (Arnold) time-travels via his own DNA strand to prehistoric times, where talking apes rule. His mission: to prevent the apes from planting a genetic time bomb in the DNA of humans, a bomb that will go off in modern times and kill everyone on Earth. “That sounds cool,” you say. I say “Read it, and you will understand.” Arnie’s character was named Robert Plant, and he met apes named Aragorn and Strider. The script ends with Arnie, trapped in the distant past, building a hay-and-sticks Statue of Liberty on a cliff “zo ve can remembah vhere ve come vrom.” At this point, producers said “We need to cast a more American lead, so let’s get Ben Kingsley, and Arnie can play a caveman.” End of project.

Of course, before all this came Planet of the Men, the original sequel concept to the first film. This script saw Taylor and Nova convince surviving humans to reclaim their planet, conquering the apes and putting things back where they were, with music by Cher and Lady Gaga. This concept did not survive; instead, we got Charlton Heston’s younger brother or something, and mutants in a cave, in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The original version of that script, by the way, ended with Taylor and Nova and Cornelius and Zira founding a new, friendly Ape City, which culminated in the birth of a half-ape, half-human child, because Zira wanted her some Taylor. You could tell. “No inter-species sex,” the studio said. “Blow up the planet instead.”

I am not making any of this up.

There was also a short-lived animated series in 1975, also called Return to the Planet of the Apes. This featured Gilligan, the Skipper, Fonzie, Scooby-Doo and Donny Osmond sent to the Planet of the Apes, where they became a circus act and fought crime on the side. The series ended apruptly after sneaky animators hid a quick-cut scene involving a monkey, a monk and a water bottle in one episode.


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