With Snowden thudding resoundingly at the US box office – Oliver Stone’s lowest opening in 20 years – let’s distract ourselves, ahead of its UK release, with an outstandingly mad concept. What if a filmmaker considered one of the most righteous, anti-establishment figures in the business went full Hollywood, and dived into a franchise? Well buckle up, you damned dirty apes, as this is the tale of how triple Oscar-winner Oliver Stone went rogue and sent Arnold Schwarzenegger back in time to stop a mutation that was invented by apes and planted in our genes like a time bomb, by using DNA and a CD-ROM. Amazing.
To begin the theme of time travel: it’s 1994 and Oliver Stone is fresh off Natural Born Killers, looking for his next project with longtime producer partners Don Murphy and Jane Hamsher – when suddenly Murphy comes up with a bright idea. He throws Stone into a room of Fox executives to pitch the next chapter in the Planet of the Apes anthology. As a big Apes fan, he feels if anyone can do it, it’s Stone. As the room grows silent, eagerly leaning in to hear Stone’s hotshot plan, he says: “Oh, I don’t know, I watched the original films a couple nights ago and they are awful.” Here’s where you realise that the public-facing Stone is very much the private one too: stubborn and honest to a fault. Yet Stone – seemingly enjoying an acid flashback – concocts a genius plan. As The Robot Voices found, Stone said: “What if time were not linear, but circular, and there was no difference between the past and the future?…And what if there were discovered cryogenically frozen Vedic Apes who held the secret numeric codes to the Bible that foretold the end of civilization?” Mic. Drop. Somewhat unbelievably, the execs wrote a cheque – and Return of the Apes was born.
With Terry Hayes (of Mad Max 2 and From Hell ‘fame’) on central scripting duties, work began in earnest. In no time, a script was sent to Schwarzenegger – then resplendent with Conan hair – who looked forward to a “bloody, violent, gory ape movie.” Before we go on, please take the time to check the draft we found here . It’s gold – and not in an entirely sarcastic way either.
It begins with a genuinely compelling concept, one which affects humans worldwide. At Harvard, scientists observe the body of another deceased child, suffering from an atrophied vascular system and senile dementia fresh from the womb. Yes, it’s gruesome but it’s mighty compelling. The core concept, you see, is that human life is accelerating at an incredible rate – so much so that in three months, there’ll be no new lives created. Dr. Will Robinson, formerly Robert Plant (we’ll touch on the pop culture references later), alongside fellow Professor of Biology Billie Rae Diamond – who is pregnant – believe there’s one last throw of the dice to come. Having discovered the mutant gene laying dormant within human DNA, Plant realises he must go backward in time to remove it, and save our species. To open your first scenes with a stillborn baby with dementia? That’s stern stuff.
Will travels backwards in time in his special flotation tube, and immediately hits trouble. Will is soon captured by a tribe of Paleolithic humans who are part of the Tribe of the Tiger. Kip-Kena, their leader, orders Will’s death but suddenly an army, mounted on horseback, surges into the settlement. Sound familiar? An injured Will gets sent into the heart of the city of apes, and is to be judged by the Council of Elders. It – shockingly – doesn’t turn out so well for Will, as they decide he must be murdered before he brings about the end of the apes. In the nick of time, Will escapes with fellow human Aragorn (again, sound familiar?) to find the prison laboratory. In the laboratory, they find six tribespeople, including Aragorn’s daughter, all of whom carry deep surgical scars on their heads; they have been lobotomised. Aragorn doesn’t say a word; he loads the crossbow and starts to fire, killing them all. Typical Aragorn – killing his own daughter with a crossbow.
Meanwhile, back in the present, Billie heads into her own flotation tube to join Will in the past. Kip-Kena – the leader of the humans from earlier – has called a gathering of the Seven Tribes of humans at the place called the Eagle’s Nest. They’ve now discovered the disease that Dr. Zora, an implied relative of Dr. Zaius, has created to destroy humans, and Billie explains how the mother of the human race must not be exposed to it. And so it was that the Fellowship of the Ring – I mean, men – was formed to take on the apes.
Now this next part gets rather twisted, and it’s rather deliciously done too. It’s fascinating to think that this came from the mind of the same Oliver Stone who made Platoon, Salvador and Nixon. Yet it’s scenes like this that suggest Stone is behind this. As the humans sneak around the city centre, they hear the Manhood Ceremony take place: a gruesome and intense act which begins with a young ape being sliced on his forehead. His next act is to kill a human, and the young ape is placed in an area with a 12-year-old human boy separated from his mother. As the coliseum of apes chant “Kill! Kill! KILL!”, the alarm is tripped by the humans and the boy is, literally, saved by the bell. Not to miss an opportunity, the boy picks up a spear and charges it “deep into the ape’s groin.” The ape slumps upon the boy, slashing his ribcage – not fatally, mind. This is a mere canapé ahead of the great battle of apes vs. humans.
To get you in the mood, picture Arnold Schwarzenegger driving a flamethrowing steampunk tank. Either you’ve got a cheesy grin or your head in your hands. With the flamethrower activated, he sends Nazgul (I mean, come on!), the leader of the Elders, plummeting to death. The Ape City is now in flames. Soon after Ma-Gog, the High Priest, receives a crossbow to the gut, and then to the heart via Aragorn who exclaims: “For my people… and this – for my daughter!” Yet it’s not all over for the Great British Crossbow-Off as the big baddie Drak shoots his crossbow into Aragorn, killing him instantly.
This is where we get our Aliens moment. Eve (the child spotted to be the first human) and Diamond are the next targets for Drak. As he heads towards them, Will, in his giant Claw – a machine with iron jaws that can snap anything with ease – gets the line of the film. Drak screams and runs. Will flips a lever, and then he roars: “Keep your hands off her, you dirty ape.” Coming out of the mouth of Schwarzenegger, it could have been something beautiful.
As Will finds the ‘squeeze’ lever, he stares Drak in the eye, watching until his hand goes limp. The beast is dead. Will, in a defiant last turn, holds Drak high above the other apes. They watch in horror as he is cut in half and everything from the waist down falls to the ground. Yet this is not even the best/worst moment. Some time later on a beach, Will is on top of a rocky cliff, building something out of iron, sand and rock. After Eve helps Diamond give birth to a healthy son – the proof that their plan succeeded – we see what Will was building: a sculpture of the head and crown of the Statue of Liberty. He says: “It’s to make sure we never forget where we came from.” Fin.
In some weird twisted way I’m sure this could work, but it would have been one truly mad film. It’s fair to say that this does not feel cut from the same cloth as the other Planet of the Apes films. Besides the Zora-Zaius connection, there’s more in common with Lord of the Rings than Planet of the Apes. The script contains ‘Ma-Gog’, ‘Mithral’, ‘Nazgul’, ‘Aragorn the Ranger of the Easterlings’, ‘Strider’ and ‘Middle-earth’. More than this, the script takes pop culture references from every nook and cranny. Our scientist’s original name was Robert Plant (lead singer of Led Zeppelin) and has been changed to Will Robinson (the protagonist of Lost in Space).
So, what happened? Well, the next step involves baseball. The script was mad, but far from the worse we’ve seen. And yet it lingered in development hell. The man to blame is Executive Producer, Dylan Sellers. Sellers – who somehow wanted to top the madness of Stone – decided the film needed baseball. Honest to god, baseball was supposed to be the answer. The plan was to have the apes coached by Arnold. “What if our main guy finds himself in Ape land, and the Apes are trying to play a game like baseball, but they’re missing one element, like the pitcher or something. And when our guy comes along, he knows what they’re missing, and he shows them, and they all start playing. Kind of like The Flintstones.”
Sellers was so committed to the idea that he fired Terry Hayes for not making the changes. A new writer was never found, Schwarzenegger lost interest, and then-attached director Phillip Noyce went on to do The Saint. Oliver Stone switched his attention to other film projects, and Don Murphy and Jane Hamsher were brought off the project by Fox. The apes were not to return. Considering the next entry into the canon was the awful Tim Burton-directed Planet of the Apes, perhaps we’re giving this script too much credit. And yet, the thought of Arnie taking on apes at the height of his star power is just one project that is difficult to resist, and avoid a big grin emerging on your face.