When Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens in theaters on July 11, sci-fi fans will virtually swing from the trees in celebration. That’s because the Planet of the Apes series holds a warm, fuzzy, gorilla-sized place in the pantheon of sci-fi franchises and in the hearts of nerds the world over.
If you’re of a certain age, you recall in awe and wonder the first sights of the amazing cinematic simians (don’t call them monkeys—they absolutely hate that) of the original series, beginning with Planet of the Apes in 1968. Featuring groundbreaking makeup by Academy Award-winner John Chambers, a quirky, spooky soundtrack, and an outstanding ensemble cast, the first Apes movie told the story of a group of astronauts propelled thousands of years into the future. They crash-land on a planet where intelligent, talking apes rule and mute human beasts inhabit the jungles. Taylor (played by Charlton Heston, in a performance that’s both remarkably subtle and over-the-top at the same time) is the eventual lone survivor of the astronauts. He escapes his ape captors, only to discover (I know it’s been 46 years, but SPOILER ALERT) that the planet he is marooned on is actually a post-apocalyptic Earth, where humankind nuked its own civilization millennia before.
The original Planet of the Apes was a huge critical and box-office success. It’s widely regarded as a science-fiction classic, named by organizations including the American Film Institute and Empire magazine as being among the best films of all time. With its iconic imagery and memorable dialogue (“Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”), the movie is the kind of happy marriage of source material, talent, and timeless message that is the hallmark of great cinema.
The Apes franchise traces the origins of its species to the 1963 novel La Planète des singes by French author Pierre Boulle. After the movie rights to the novel were acquired by producer Arthur P. Jacobs (Dr. Dolittle, Goodbye Mr. Chips), the screenplay was written by Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame) and Michael Wilson (a formerly blacklisted Hollywood writer whose credits included It’s a Wonderful Life, A Place in the Sun, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia). The film kept intact many of the novel’s motifs, including the division of the apes into three distinct classes: the militaristic gorillas, the politically and ideologically conservative orangutans, and the scientifically curious, liberal chimpanzees. (In fact, at one point in the 1968 film, the orangutan Dr. Zaius tells Taylor that “there is no contradiction between faith and science—true science!” Hello? 2014 calling!)
The original Planet of the Apes went on to spawn four sequels. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) tells the story of the astronaut who comes in search of Taylor’s doomed expedition, and features atomic bomb-worshipping mutants and the annihilation of the entire planet (no, we’re not kidding about that). In 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes, chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira travel back to present-day Earth, where they find themselves celebrated, and then hunted by government agents. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) features Roddy McDowall (a mainstay of the series) as Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, who leads an ape revolt against mankind. And in Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), apes and humans grapple for power in the post simian-revolution world.
With these five films, as well as two Planet of the Apes TV shows and numerous comic-book series that followed, the Apes franchise forged a firm paw-hold in American common culture. Perhaps nowhere was that seen better than in a 1996 installment of The Simpsons titled “A Fish Called Selma.” In that episode, actor Troy McClure (who you might remember from such films as The Greatest Story Ever Hulaed and The Wackiest Covered Wagon in the West) tries to revive his dormant career by starring in the stage musical, Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off!
Director Tim Burton helmed the first reboot of the Apes series in a 2001. His Planet of the Apes featured a barrel of all-star actors, including Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Paul Giamatti. Despite being a financial success, the film opened to mixed reviews, and plans for a sequel were abandoned.
The Apes franchise would lay idle until 2011, with the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In this second reboot, one replete with nods to the original series, scientific experiments intended to cure Alzheimer’s disease inadvertently lead to the creation of a hyper-intelligent chimp named Caesar, as well as a virus that decimates humanity. In the new Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, human survivors take up arms in an effort to fight back against the burgeoning ape civilization Caesar leads.
So there you have it, a condensed history of the Planet of the Apes saga—in the immortal words of Troy McClure, from chimpan-A to chimpanzee. Armed with this knowledge, you can go to the new movie, and even the nerdiest of your nerdy mates (or primates, as the case may be) won’t make a monkey out of you.