If Matt Reeves’ much-anticipated “War on the Planet of the Apes” (20th Century Fox) opens Friday to an expected $70 million or more, that would put it ahead (in domestic returns at least) of such recent high altitude-franchise stumbles as “Alien: Covenant,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” and “Transformers.”
Several factors contribute to the elevated respect for the series, going back almost half a century to when the first film, never intended as anything other than a standalone, became a surprise success in 1968.
Let’s track some curious highlights on the unusual trajectory that brings us to the ninth entry in the longest running English-language film series other than James Bond:
Pierre Boule was well-known for the World War II novel “The Bridge on the River Kwai” which became a David Lean Best Picture winner and massive worldwide hit in the late 1950s. (The Frenchman spoke no English, so his Oscar win for adapting his novel was an obvious subterfuge to hide its actual blacklisted writers.) Similar to Bond writer Ian Fleming, Boule dabbled in undercover spy activities (in Singapore and Malaya during the war). “Bridge” was based on his experiences as a prisoner.
“Planet of the Apes” was his other, very different, novel to find success. Producer Arthur P. Jacobs (“Dr. Dolittle”) had expressed passing interest to Boule’s agent in finding a project similar to “King Kong,” which led to the long-shot suggestion of this novel. Jacobs’ interest wasn’t science-fiction (“2001: A Space Odyssey” opened later in 1968); he considered the story closer to an end-of-the-world saga with the potential of such popular in movies and TV series as “Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits.”
With director Franklin J. Schaffner (who next made “Patton”) and Charlton Heston reteaming after their earlier “The War Lord,” and with an above-average $6 million budget, “Planet of the Apes” was meant to stand above the conventional drive-in and kids’ bait action films that were common at the time.
The result was a surprise success. Backed by decent reviews but also strong word of mouth (propelled in part from its unexpected ending), “Planet” ended up the ninth biggest hit of 1968 (sandwiched conveniently between two other genre films, “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Night of the Living Dead”). Its gross translated to 2017 prices was $220 million.
Of the 10 biggest hits released in 1968, five yielded at least one sequel –“2001,” “Funny Girl,” “The Love Bug” and “Night of the Living Dead” — which is commonplace today.
Back then this was not typical at all. Throughout film history, series were considered less prestigious than A-list presentations. Many were successful — MGM had the Andy Hardy and Dr. Kildare films, Universal Ma and Pa Kettle, Columbia Blondie, RKO Dick Tracy — but this was considered routine, run-of-the-mill filmmaking.
Five official James Bond films entries by 1968 began to change that thinking — “Thunderball” in 1965 arguably was the first contemporary mass-market blockbuster. The Pink Panther and Man With No Name Sergio Leone westerns also showed the power of bringing back successful plots and characters.
Such precedents as Ray Harryhausen’s “Sinbad” series and Hammer’s B-horror successes may have influenced producer Jacobs’ quick push for building on the first “Apes” film. The turnaround was quick. “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” with more focus on simians than humans, and without Schaffner or marquee star Heston, came along in spring 1970. It grossed adjusted over $100 million, and led to three other titles (“Escape,” “Conquest” and “Battle”) in the following three years, with falling grosses, which were still profitable.
They were not A titles at the time, and the idea that a franchise (other than UA’s Bond or Pink Panther series) could be among the biggest titles a studio could release would await “The Godfather Part Two” (the first major sequel ever to have a number in its title) and the “Rocky” series to become an essential tentpole for production schedules. Still, significantly, the initial “Apes” series normalized the notion of taking a hit film and then building on it.
A short-lived TV series followed. With the Spielberg and Lucas explosion of sci-fi in the late 70s, followed by Fox’s Ridley Scott’s “Aliens” and their sequels, in the late 90s the studio explored rebooting their “Apes” franchise. Names like Oliver Stone, Chris Columbus and James Cameron all took turns tinkering with the idea (with Arnold Schwarzenegger considered to star) before ultimately Tim Burton became involved.
The result for the 2001 “The Planet of the Apes” reboot was the third biggest (in adjusted grosses) hit of Burton’s career (behind his two Batman films). With an adjusted gross of $282 million, it remains to this day the biggest hit in the series. Burton was a key draw for “Apes,” which had a human-dominated story. Mark Wahlberg was the lead for the first time in a blockbuster, beginning a decade of versatile work in multiple genres that solidified his status as a marquee name, particularly for top directors.
“Planet of the Apes” was #10 for 2001, on a list comprised of franchise titles with one exception (“Pearl Harbor”). But the Burton entry was not well-received critically, so the director (who has avoided sequels except for Batman) backed away.
It turns out the decision not to extend the initial reboot and its more conventional action story was a smart one. Fox took several years to come back with 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” The movie’s center became the ape world and its characters, with advances in VFX technology allowing the synthesis of acting and effects to rise to new levels of artistry.
The touchstone of its plot has more in common with Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” than the comic book universe that dominates many franchises. Though “Apes” hasn’t had the unified creative vision that Peter Jackson gave those two trilogies, it has had production and writing continuity and now Matt Reeves directing both 2014’s “Dawn” and “War.” But the decision to go smart and long-term rather than just play on variations of existing easy elements has worked so far.
“Dawn” grossed about 15 per cent better than “Rise” with close to a three-time multiple (in adjusted figures, opening to $79 million and totaling $228 million domestic). The reviews are the best for any franchise film this year (ahead of “Wonder Woman” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Metacritic at the moment stands at 81, regarded as “universal acclaim”). And it might take a little longer with so much quality competition (“Dunkirk” follows): it will need a sustained long run to maximize its potential.
But Fox and company look to have figured out early in the process what the producers of other declining (at least in domestic results) series haven’t — with so many retreads out there, the public looks for quality and distinction to get them interested in return visits.