It’s been almost 50 years since Planet of the Apes first hit theaters. When it did, it shocked audiences that had never seen anything quite like it before. Predating Star Wars by almost a decade, it’s safe to say that it’s one of the longest-running and most storied sci-fi franchises in Hollywood today. It’s path to where it is now though hasn’t been quite so linear as some of its contemporaries. Between 1968 and 1973, 20th Century Fox was averaging a sequel per year, followed by a quickly canceled TV series in 1974. A year later, a cartoon series hit the airwaves, but didn’t last past its initial 13-episode run.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the idea for a Planet of the Apes remake was floated, beginning the infamous saga of development hell that wasn’t resolved until Tim Burton’s ill-fated 2001 reboot. Burton’s try was disastrous enough to shelve the franchise for another decade, until 2011 successfully revived it with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes soon followed, and it was official: The franchise was back. Next up on the sequel docket is War of the Planet of the Apes, and we imagine it won’t stop there if 20th Century Fox has anything to say about it.
Let’s rewind a bit and break down what exactly made this franchise worth the amount of effort that’s been expended over the last almost half century. The original Planet of the Apes was penned by none other than Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame. It’s not hard to see the similarities between the movie and Serling’s TV show either: A sci-fi backdrop shows us a terrifying world that isn’t what it originally appeared to be. In 1968, this is what resonated with audiences most, and PotA was the first time the format was successfully ported into the world of cinema.
With 1960s A-list Charlton Heston as the lead, it was an absolute slam dunk for Fox. In a time where sci-fi movie franchises were virtually unheard of, Planet of Apes was revolutionary in its own right. It helps blaze the way for Lucas’s Star Wars, and even James Cameron’s Terminator, and without it, the landscape of sci-fi would be unrecognizable. Re-capturing that appeal though has been the real challenge for 20th Century Fox. We saw the potential for failure with Tim Burton’s take, and 10 years after the fact, the franchise finally got a remake worthy of its original film.
So why has Fox been so insistent on keeping these movies alive? For one, the last two remakes have made them a boatload of movie. Secondly, the studio isn’t exactly swimming in tentpole franchises right now. Right now, all they really have is X-Men, Alien (and Prometheus), and Avatar (currently waiting on a sequel six years later). We live in an age of sequels and reboots, leaving each studio to use whatever scraps and spare parts they have lying around. Having possessed the rights to Planet of the Apes for upwards for 45 years, it’s a no-brainer for them to recreate the successful franchise of the lat 60s/early 70s.
To Fox’s credit, they’ve done a stellar job on the last two installments in the PotA series, driven largely by Andy Serkis’s work in a motion capture suit. If they want to continue this success, they’ll need to remember just what it was about the original films that enthralled audiences so much: A compelling story, a terrifying future, and deeper themes on what defines humanity. These are the things that have kept these movies alive for decades, and likely will be what drives the future of the franchise forward for decades more.
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