The worst Planet of the Apes movie could have been the best one.

Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes has gone down in history as one of the worst reboots ever made. (It certainly appears on this website’s list of terrible reboots.) The failure of the final product is not entirely Burton’s fault; 20th Century Fox spent much of the 1980s and ’90s looking for a way to revive the Apes franchise, which was retired following 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Fox spend untold millions developing and abandoning various concepts for a new Planet of the Apes before finding one they liked by William Broyles Jr.

The film he wrote was then fast-tracked for release as Fox’s big tentpole release for the summer of 2001 — too fast, as it turned out, as Burton raced against an almost impossible deadline to finish the project in time to hit that date. He did, although not very successfully. His Planet of the Apes came out in theaters on schedule, but it was a total mess, with Mark Wahlberg playing a grumpy human astronaut who ventures into a black hole to rescue an chimp colleague from his crew and winds up on an alien world populated by hyper-intelligent apes.


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That is the Planet of the Apes revival we got. The failure of Burton’s film set the franchise back a decade; it was another ten years before the series was rebooted again, this time far more successfully with a prequel concept that charted the Planet of the Apes’ origins through a trilogy of movies featuring motion-captured apes. But the Apes franchise is all about branching paths in times, and here is one to consider: The entire history of the series over the last 25 years could have been different if Fox had chosen to make one of the earlier Apes drafts they rejected in favor of the concept by Broyles they ultimately produced.

This unmade draft, titled Return of the Apes, was developed in the mid-1990s and spearheaded by filmmaker Oliver Stone, who was brought on to produce a radically different take on the franchise that was intriguing enough to land Arnold Schwarzenegger — then at the absolute zenith of his star power in Hollywood — in its lead human role.

It was a wildly different vision of an Apes concept than anything made by Fox before or since and that alone makes it amongst the most intriguing unproduced screenplays of the 1990s. If you’re so inclined, you can find copies of Return of the Apes online. If you just want the tl;dr, here are the highlights.

The Greatest Planet of the Apes Movie That Was Never Made

In the mid-1990s, Oliver Stone signed on to produce a Planet of the Apes reboot that would have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although never made, the script for this Return of the Apes exists online — and it is a wild read.

Awkward Statue of Liberty callbacks notwithstanding, the rest of Return of the Apes is fun. It reads like an epic summer blockbuster. But Fox executives were supposedly uncertain about Hayes and Stone’s approach, and they went in a different direction.

The next attempt at a Planet of the Apes revival came from Sam Hamm, the co-writer of Tim Burton’s Batman. His script started with the same basic inciting incident as Return of the Apes — a deadly virus that threatens to wipe out humanity — but used it to start was otherwise a modern retelling of the original Planet of the Apes tale, with astronauts venturing into deep space and encountering a planet populated by brilliant apes, including new versions of iconic characters like Dr. Zaius, Zira, and Cornelius. Not long after that, William Broyles Jr. wrote his draft, and Burton himself got involved. The rest is history.

What I love about the Planet of the Apes as a franchise is the way it takes big swings, and often reinvents itself from movie to movie. This is a franchise that destroyed the entire Earth in its first sequel, and then found a way to carry on for three more movies! The first two Apes were set on this bizarre planet (in what we eventually learn is the distant future of our own world), but the third film was set in then-present-day America. The fourth took place in a dystopian future where men subjugated apes as slaves. And so on. You never know quite what to expect from these movies in the way you do from a lot of other blockbuster series.

So while Stone and Hayes’ concept for Return of the Apes was certainly different than everything that had come before, making something that was different than everything that had come before would have been very much in keeping with the Apes saga, at least in a spiritual sense. The end result might have been as uneven as Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes wound up being — but with Arnold Schwarzenegger versus steampunk apes, there is no way it would have been as boring.

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