"Man's hubris will be his downfall."
That was the theme that Rise of the Planet of the Apes screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa built their reimagining of the classic franchise upon when the movie came out ten years ago this week on Aug. 5, 2011. Rise, a prequel that intentionally played it loose-ish with its connections to the 1968 original starring Charlton Heston, was a reboot that few had high expectations for; the last time the word "reimagining" was mentioned alongside Planet of the Apes, it was Tim Burton's expensive and disappointing 2001 entry starring Mark Wahlberg. Rise would succeed where Burton's bloated film failed by using science fiction to tell a more grounded, character-driven cautionary tale. A story told predominantly from the apes' perspective — one specific ape in particular, Caesar (played via mo-cap by the scary-talented Andy Serkis).
In Rise, Caesar goes from lab experiment to revolutionary leader as man's latest attempt to play god forces apes to once again dominate the planet as the seemingly more evolved primates (us) succumb to a fatal virus. Caesar's emotionally stirring arc helped Rise of the Planet of the Apes overperform at the box office, thus spawning one of the last decade's best film series. But this wasn't the version of Caesar the filmmakers originally had in mind. In honor of Rise's tenth anniversary, SYFY WIRE plays "what if..." and compares some of the movie's original scripts to what fans saw in the final film.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was always envisioned as a movie told primarily from Caesar's point of view. The husband and wife writing duo of Silver and Jaffa pitched a Planet of the Apes reboot to 20th Century Fox in 2006 and, at the time, Fox seemingly had no plans for more movies featuring those "damn, dirty apes." But the screenwriting duo's inventive take was impossible to resist.
"The idea came together from several different sources and bits I'd been working on and staring at for a long time," Jaffa revealed in a 2011 interview. "One of which was the amount of people in our country that are raising chimps and primates in their home, some as pets, but many as children. I'd done a lot of research for other projects about genetic engineering, and then I had been reading a lot of accounts of people who had been attacked by their own chimpanzees after having raised them. So a lot of those ideas were just sitting there, and they just coalesced one day as an idea for Planet of the Apes."
That idea centered on a scientist, Will, played by James Franco, struggling with his staff at Gen-Sys labs to develop a retrovirus that could cure Alzheimer's — especially in Will's dad, played by John Lithgow. Will's attempts to find the disease's cure ironically creates a pandemic that wipes out most of humankind. Before that catastrophe occurs, Will develops a deep bond with his most successful test subject, Caesar, who Will takes home. There, Caesar develops increased cognitive abilities as a result of the drug trials. Caesar's accelerated evolution sets him on a tragic but necessary path to leader of the apes.
It took Jaffa and Silver four drafts to lock in on the "cure for Alzheimer's" subplot, but the core story remained the same. Only what Will was working on, and some of what Caesar was rebelling against, would change. (In some early drafts, a more sinister Will was using apes to develop a drug that could make humans smarter.) An early draft of Caesar: Rise of the Apes (to which writer Jamie Moss contributed) also included more Easter eggs connecting this movie to the '68 original. Namely, Rise would pepper in fictional TV news footage chronicling the launch and voyage of the '68 film's spaceship Icarus, the craft home to astronaut Taylor (Heston) that crashes in Dr. Zaius' backyard. (In the theatrical release, there is only one mention of the Icarus delivered by news broadcast.)
In December 2008, it was announced that writer-director Scott Frank (The Queen's Gambit, Out of Sight) was set to direct the movie, now titled Caesar. Silver and Jaffa worked on a "draft and a half" with Frank before his rewrite took the movie and its main character in a darker, more cerebral, direction.
"This film will not feature talking monkeys, and it will not end with chimpanzees running wild in the streets, taking over the world," Frank told the now-defunct movie website CHUD in 2010. Frank's version of the movie — a "hard science-fiction film about genetic engineering" — would give Caesar an increasingly anti-human vendetta. He would appear as less of a Moses figure and more of a violent combo of Spartacus and Michael Corleone, one who grows tired of the inhumanity his human captors force upon ape kind and themselves. As a result of bearing witness to such cruelty, Caesar would lead a bloody uprising.
According to Silver and Jaffa, this take on Caesar would have given him more of a "Michael Corleone trajectory." In this iteration, Lithgow's character also did not exist; it was Will and his wife. Caesar would imprison his adoptive parents and his anger toward them would spark the ape revolution. Caesar's desire for revenge appealed to Frank's vision of the character, as he wanted audiences to "come to really feel for this ape, even as the final act sees him taking actions that may be hard for [audiences] to agree with."
While Frank's vision wasn't entirely divorced from the tone and world of Planet of the Apes, it proved too far outside what execs wanted from a big-budget, four-quadrant summer movie. Ultimately, Frank left the project and Jaffa and Silver returned to help director Rupert Wyatt execute the film. Script doctor Mark Bomback, who would also help write Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, also worked on the script.
With Jaffa and Silver back onboard, most of their original story remained intact on the way to the silver screen. Outside of more Icarus Easter eggs, there are only three significant scenes that are missing from the final cut. The first is an image Silver and Jaffa had in all of their drafts, that of a two-year-old Caesar playing on a swing set. The ape would be tethered, but he could get high enough on his swing to observe two young boys playing next door — enjoying a freedom Caesar can't have. The second scene is an extended version of the film's ending, as we follow Will's neighbor, a very sick commercial airliner pilot named Captain Hunsiker, to the airport and onto a passenger plane. As the aircraft takes off, with its pilot becoming a super-spreader of the Simian Flu, we cut to a tree canopy where Caesar and his apes look on with foreboding eyes.
The third scene would have delivered a gut-punch of a callback to the '68 original's iconic ending. In a 2014 interview, Rise's storyboard artist Brian Cunningham told Cinemablend Rise's original ending would find an older and more tattooed Caesar climbing up a rusty spiral staircase. Through a haze of smoke and rain, Caesar reaches a landing and looks out over the apocalyptic remains of Manhattan. He watches the city burn from (clutch the pearls) the Statue of Liberty. Cut to black.
This abandoned ending works as pure fan-service, sure, but it would have done a disservice to the story Rise of the Planet of the Apes spent the last two hours telling. Rise wisely takes a less is more approach in how much it wants to connect to the iconography and legacy of Planet of the Apes; too many nods to this celebrated movie from Hollywood's past risks pinning this franchise to a certain future. That's why Rise is so successful on a story level; instead of chasing its legacy or being a slave to it, it carves out a new path by telling a story about an ape that unfolds at human height. Science fiction works best when used as a mirror held up to our modern world and that's what Rise does. It reflects our experiences in the green eyes of a chimpanzee as he finds his own humanity just as the world suffers the loss of theirs.
Mankind's hubris may lead to its downfall, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes — in all of its various incarnations — makes a strong argument that it can also lead to a better understanding of what makes mankind so special. For if an ape can appreciate the value of what it means to be human, maybe there's hope for the rest of us, too.
A hope we can realize before stumbling upon the remains of Lady Liberty tells us we're too late.