The idea of the Planet of the Apes franchise began with a somewhat satirical French novel by Pierre Boulle called La Planète des singes, published in 1963, about a human astronaut landing on a planet full of intelligent apes and devolved human beings. Since then, the series and franchise have expanded into a full-fledged ape-universe and even a great reboot. Let’s take a look back on the history of the Planet of the Apes timeline.
The Apes story gained momentum in 1968, a few years after the original French publication, with the release of a new sci-fi action film entitled Planet of the Apes. The film stars Charlton Heston as an astronaut who, in 1972, enjoyed his hyper-sleep a little too much–by at least a few millennia. He crash-lands onto an unknown world, which he believes is a distant alien planet ruled by advanced simians. He soon discovers that the strange planet is actually Earth’s distant future–the year 3978 to be exact–where apes have gained control and humans are enslaved and devolved.
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall
The critically-acclaimed sequel to the original film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, features a rescue party coming to find Heston’s ship. Instead, the crew discovers a group of super-mutated, psychic human beings living underground. What’s even weirder about this? They worship a nuclear warhead. In the film, a huge war occurs between the cult-humans and the apes. This results in the nuclear warhead going off (a dream come true for the cultists?), destroying the planet for good. There’s been some debate over the timeline for this film and where it fits into the history of the Planet of the Apes, as it features Heston as he was in the first movie, but claims that it is in the year 3955 (almost 20 years before he crash-landed). I’m going to say that someone messed up on these calculations. Or someone really doesn’t care.
Director: Ted Post
Starring: James Franciscus, Kim Hunter
How do you survive a nuclear apocalypse? By using Heston’s ship called the Icarus to travel back in time to 1973, OF COURSE. This is exactly what Zira and Cornelius do in Escape from the Planet of the Apes; and by doing so, they become groovy time-traveling celebrities...who just happen to be apes. But these damned-dirty apes can’t hold their liquor, and reveal to their drunk non-ape compadres that yes, they used to dissect humans and use them as lab animals; because, clearly, there is no other appropriate drinking topic than that. Zira and Cornelius are imprisoned, tortured, eventually escape, and have a child named Caesar.
Director: Don Taylor
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter
Now, the timeline branches off into two alternative futures (as if it hasn’t already). In this timeline, we follow Caesar’s life 20 years after the death of his parents. During these 20 years, a virus has wiped out cats and dogs, leaving humanity with only one choice for their friendly household pet: an ape! I guess hamsters, ferrets, lizards, and rocks are out of the question. Quickly, the humans realize that apes make better slaves than pets–or other slaves–and the world is divided into apes and the ruling human class. Caesar is the companion of ape sympathizer Ricardo Montalban (KHHAAANN), and eventually leads a rebellion against the humans. The film oddly ends with Caesar sympathizing with the humans, which makes no sense in Charlton Heston’s timeline universe; but apparently, what the test-audience wants, the real-audience gets.
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Don Murray
Can we really not think of better titles? This movie returns to the same point in the history of The Planet of the Apes as the original series (70’s era) once again. The film situates itself 10 years after the events of Conquest, but also 600 years in the future, where a wise ape retells the events we witness in the film. This future presents a world where humans and apes live in harmony (finally). In the film, Caesar is featured in the midst of creating his ape civilization, cautioning those around him that the apes are not to enslave and brutalize humans. But this film is confusing (in the ever-confusing timeline) because it features an alternative future than his parents came from. Time travel’s a bitch, huh?
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Claude Akins
In the first reboot of the original series, Burton’s version of Apes features 'Marky-Mark' Wahlberg as Charlton Heston’s character, whose ship takes off in 2029, and crash lands onto the “ape planet” in 5021. Why the weird year change, Tim Burton? By doing so, have you somehow made this more realistic to actual reality? What differs in this retelling is that Wahlberg returns to a contemporary Earth, and find that it too is run by apes...and there is a statue of an Ape-braham Lincoln. In terms of choosing between this timeline, or the original timeline, I’d say stick to the original one, and forget this film even exists.
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth
The other branch of the history of The Planet of the Apes timeline fork is featured in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This film is basically a re-imagining of Conquest, with a tad more sympathy and a lot more James Franco. The director obviously had timeline consistency on his mind, as the film briefly mentions that the Mars-bound spaceship Icarus has disappeared, beginning all of our timeline events. Caesar is portrayed as a relatable and misunderstood villain, wanting only freedom, not conquest. Not even James Franco can convince his dejected pet from otherwise. The rise of the apes occurs because of a gene therapy virus, which aids the apes but is deadly towards humans. This provides an explanation for how the apes can rise while the humans can fall.
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: Andy Serkis, Karin Konoval, James Franco
Last one [in the film series]–yay! Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins 10 years after the events of Rise (don’t worry, I’m confused too). It continues the alternate Caesar timeline, and introduces an interesting parallel with Conquest: that instead of a virus destroying only cats and dogs, the Simian Flu (featured in the James Franco film) has wiped out most of humanity. Caesar’s gang decides that Guerilla Warfare is the way to go, and live in the woods among their merry band of intelligent apes. Human civilization is in decay, and in a poignant scene, all of the lights in San Francisco go out. The movie focalizes on the struggle for power between Caesar, a human sympathizer (thanks, Franco) and his former lieutenant, who despises humans for torturing him in medical labs. I think we can all agree that we’d like to avoid a future where apes and humans are in constant battle against each other; so let’s just be nice to everyone, okay?
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke
The history of The Planet of the Apes timeline spans over centuries, both in the comic books and the movies. A new book featuring essays from multiple authors, edited by Rich Handley and Joseph F. Berenato, explores the vast history that the 150+ Planet of the Apes comics explore. The Sacred Scrolls: Comics on the Planet of the Apes explores and analyzes the history of the series through an essay anthology with funny, thoughtful, and insightful analysis from an array of “ape experts”. Anyone interested in the Planet of the Apes lore needs to get his damn-dirty ape paws into this history.