Variety is reporting that James Franco has been cast in a prequel to “Planet of the Apes” entitled “Rise of the Apes.” He’ll play a “young, driven scientist who becomes a crucial figure” in a war between mankind and genetically engineered super-apes. If he’s very lucky, he may even yell “You maniacs!” while wearing a loincloth. The film goes into production in July for a June 2011 release.
Though the project is being billed as a prequel, it’s also something of a remake. The original “Planet of the Apes” series bore its own prequels — three of them, in fact, necessitated by the fact that Charlton Heston only agreed to return for the first “Apes” sequel on the condition that he got to SPOILER ALERT! nuke the entire world in order to ensure he wouldn’t get asked to do any more damn dirty ape movies. Sadly, Heston was once again outsmarted by those dastardly primates; a couple of them survived the explosion and traveled back through time to the present, which is where Fox set three more films in the series before finally retiring the franchise for a couple decades.
Of the three previous prequels, the proposed storyline for Franco’s “Apes” bears the strongest resemblance to 1972’s “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.” In it, the now-grown son of said epoch-hopping simians leads the world’s population of enslaved apes, who are kept as pets after a space virus kills every dog and cat on the planet — Damn you all to hell, space virus! — in an armed revolution against humanity.
Headache-inducing time travel paradoxes aside, “Conquest” is actually a pretty interesting movie, far edgier than most modern Hollywood sequels (or non-sequels, for that matter). Honoring the allegory of the original “Planet of the Apes,” “Conquest” is a none-too-thinly veiled civil rights parable, with the super-intelligent Caesar (Roddy McDowall) cast as a Malcolm X-esque freedom fighter. Honoring the original “Apes”‘s mega-depressing ending, “Conquest” concludes with nothing less than the fall of humanity.
Caesar fights his captors, sets fire to the compound where he and his fellow apes were kept, and gives an impassioned monologue against oppression. “From this day forward,” Caesar declares, “my people will crouch, and conspire, and plot, and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall… the day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble!” Then Caesar and his ape troops beat all the surviving humans to death.
Test audiences were so (understandably) freaked out by the brutality of a movie about dudes in rubber monkey masks that Fox recut the conclusion in an attempt to soften it. The theatrical version ditched some of the mass slaughter and added a conciliatory coda to Caesar’s speech. Yeah, the world’s afire and mankind’s on the downward slope, but Caesar says he’s going to be a humane ruler. So it’s a happy ending!
As Tim Burton already proved, cooler prosthetic makeup does not a better “Apes” make. More than the (admittedly terrific) John Chambers masks, the original “Apes” movies were great because they took risks, buried all sorts of timely social commentary into their sci-fi stories and had their courage to carry out their cynical convictions to explosive extremes.
The synopsis for the new film sounds like it shares “Conquest”‘s basic outline, but it’s hard to imagine a 2011 blockbuster ending on a downer like a metaphorical race war. Casting the intrepid Franco — who’s so fearless he just announced he’s returning for a second stint on the soap opera “General Hospital” — is a good first step for “Rise of the Apes,” but if they really want to make something worthy of the series’ legacy, they better be ready to go all the way with it.
Here’s the original “Conquest” ending:
[Photos: “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” 20th Century Fox, 1972]