The upcoming Rise of the Planet of the Apes is being sold as a prequel to the original Planet of the Apes movie. The only problem is that it already has two (!) prequels, namely 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and the 1973 Battle for the Planet of the Apes . . .

In fact Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt and starring James Franco, doesn’t seem to fit in with any of the previous Apes movies, even the ill-fated 2001 remake by Tim Burton.

Is it even a Planet of the Apes movie then?

For once the studio publicity material happens to be truthful. According to its production notes, the upcoming Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a “completely new take on one of 20th Century Fox's most beloved and successful franchises.”

They even have the hyperbole about it being one of the studio’s most “beloved” and “successful” franchises right, although it could be argued that it is probably most beloved by 20th Century suits who have throughout the years green lit various cash-ins including the upcoming prequel, which is due August 5, 2011.

You see, the truth is that most cinemagoers below the age of 40 nowadays will probably know Planet of the Apes from the confusing 2001 Tim Burton remake starring Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter amongst others – if at all!

A quick recap for anyone unfamiliar with the Apes franchise: In 1968 the first Planet of the Apes movie was made starring Charlton Heston – you might know him as the former head honcho at the NRA, but he was actually one of the most popular Hollywood stars in his time. The flick was based on the 1963 French novel La Planète des singes by Pierre Boulle who also wrote Bridge on the River Kwai.

The original Planet of the Apes was described as a “hysterical race parable” by some critics at the time, but it certainly struck a chord with moviegoers probably thanks to the then-revolutionary makeup used to turn actors such as Roddy McDowell into talking simians. Since then the movie was followed by four sequels and two television shows, one live action and one animated.

By 1973 it was however clear in the face of dwindling receipts that the series has exhausted itself at the box office and it wouldn’t be until 2001 that the franchise rights holders, namely 20th Century Fox, decided to “reboot” the series with a high-budget remake directed by Tim Burton.

The 2001 remake was one of those movies which scored big at the box office (it was the tenth-highest grossing film in North America that year), but got no love from movie audiences. It may have scored $180 million at the U.S. box office, but fans weren’t exactly clamoring for a sequel. Plus the critics slammed it – it only got a paltry 45% approval rating at

"The upcoming 2011 film largely ignores the events of all four of the 1970s Apes movies . . ."

Suits at Fox must have sensed the chilly vibe and plans for a sequel were quietly shelved. (Even director Tim Burton admitted in an interview that he would “rather jump out a window” than work on a follow-up.)

Until now, that is.

Bargaining on audiences having a short memory, this year sees the release of an Apes prequel titled Rise of the Planet of the Apes. That the movie was first titled Caesar and then Rise of the Apes and only changed to the lengthier Rise of the Planet of the Apes at the very last moment shows how much confidence Fox has in the brand recognition of its long-in-the-tooth Planet of the Apes franchise.

The movie is purportedly a prequel to the original ‘Sixties Planet of the Apes movie in which an astronaut played by Charlton Heston [SPOILERS AHEAD] discovered that the planet he has crash-landed on, in which intelligent apes are the dominant species instead of humans, is in fact the Earth and not some distant planet as he had initially thought. [END SPOILERS]

Or at least that is what one supposes judging from the new trailer (which you can watch below) and plot synopsis. But it makes sense. In the 2001 remake it is assumed that the Earth is overrun by intelligent apes because, well, the screenwriters wanted it to be and thought it would be a cool “twist” ending. (They probably drank too much coffee at their regular script meetings.)

In the 1968 movie it is implied that humanity made a mess of things and intelligent apes took over the planet following a full-scale nuclear war. “You maniacs! You blew it up!” Charlton Heston famously despairs at the end of the original classic. Nuclear destruction of the entire planet was a big issue during the Cold War (note to anyone under 20: you can Google it) and in science fiction in particular. The nuclear war analogy is further driven home in the bizarre 1970 sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which featured a cult worshipping a nuclear warhead!

Beneath the Planet of the Apes ended with the whole planet of the apes being blown up. When the movie proved to be an unexpected box office hit, screenwriters had to hurriedly come up with time traveling monkeys (seriously) for what is probably the best of the Apes sequels, namely 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes.

Cleverly enough the time traveling monkeys supplied the foundation for the plot-line of the next two films, namely Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Of the two, Conquest is most clearly a “prequel” in the proper sense of the word in that the film explains how the Earth came to be overrun by intelligent monkeys in the first place. (See, even back in the ‘Seventies Hollywood resorted to prequels.)

And just how did it come about?

Wikipedia supplies the answers:

In 1983 (several years after the end of Escape from the Planet of the Apes), a disease kills the world's cats and dogs, leaving humans with no pet animals. To replace them, humans began keeping monkeys and apes as household pets. In time, humans notice the apes' capacity to learn and adapt; thus they train them to perform menial household tasks. By 1991, the United States of America has become an oppressive and fascist culture of uniformed classes and castes, based upon ape slave labor.

Naturally the apes revolt and take over. The end. (So much for the nuclear war alluded to in the first two Apes movies!)

When one thinks about it Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is typical of most prequels: it redundantly colors in what the audience already suspects. Do we really need to know how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader? Do we really want to find out about Hannibal Lecter’s past?

The upcoming 2011 film wisely doesn’t seem to feature any diseases wiping out household pets and largely ignores the events of all four of the 1970s sequels. Nor does it seem to be a “racial parable” (after all movies actually being “about” something is so last century you know).

Instead it seems to be a remake of Deep Blue Sea, the 1999 movie in which scientists genetically modify sharks to make them more intelligent in a bid to cure Alzheimer’s. This time round scientists are messing with, um, intelligent monkeys to cure some disease. Obviously the chimps revolt and kill the humans (no surprise).

Yup, it is the old Frankenstein (1818) story of “man shouldn’t mess with nature” all over again. Only problem with that particular anti-science message is that where do we cross the line? After all, isn’t, let’s say, inventing eyeglasses also “messing with nature”? Or taking antibiotics? Should we all go live in caves again?

Ironically while Rise of the Planet of the Apes may have an anti-science message at its heart it wouldn’t be possible without modern technology. Instead of hammering on the franchise’s 42-years-plus roots, studio publicity has focused on the special effects by Peter Jackson’s famed Weta Digital outfit. After all, this will be the first time that the apes will be CGI creations like the Na’vi in Avatar (also Weta). Even the 2001 remake at the time depended on Rick Baker's prosthetic makeup instead of CGI.




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