By December 1993, Oliver Stone had signed on as executive producer/co-writer of a proposed new Planet of the Apes movie produced by Jane Hamsher and Don Murphy. Stone's preference was for a story based on apes from an ancient civilization, with biblical connections. He explained in December 1993, "It has the discovery of cryogenically frozen Vedic Apes who hold the secret numeric codes to the Bible that foretold the end of civilizations. It deals with past versus the future. My concept is that there's a code inscribed in the Bible that predicts all historical events. The apes were there at the beginning and figured it all out."
Oliver Stone recruited Australian Terry Hayes to write the screenplay, having previously had hits with Dead Calm, Mad Max 2 - The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. In March 1994, Stone secured the interest of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed on to play the lead with the condition that he had approval of director. Schwarzenegger anticipated a violent, gory interpretation of Stone's conspiracy-theory concept. Titled Return of the Apes, Hayes' screenplay begins in the near future where a plague is making humans extinct. Geneticist Will Robinson discovers the plague is a genetic time bomb embedded in the Stone Age. He time travels with a pregnant colleague named Billie Rae Diamond to a time when Palaeolithic humans were at war for the future of the planet with highly-evolved apes. Robinson and Diamond discover a young human girl named Aiv (pronounced Eve) to be the next step in evolution. They protect her from the virus, thus ensuring the survival of the human race 102,000 years later. Billie Rae gives birth to a baby boy (perhaps named Adam?).
By way of background - explained much later in the script - the central character was formerly known as scientific genius Dr. Robert Plant. Making extraordinary discoveries in the study of mitochondrial DNA (mDNA), Plant’s youthful arrogance prompted a fatal mistake. He and the three young researchers he was working with drew lots for the chance to prove his theories in the research laboratories at UC Berkeley. He was left behind while the others, including Ali Conoily, to whom he was engaged, went into sensory deprivation tanks under the influence of a chemical cocktail devised by Plant. They died in the unauthorized experiment, and his career was over. He abandoned his work, changed his name to ‘Will Robinson’ (because he was “Lost in Space”), and took up a position as a lab assistant at Harvard.
The movie opens as a South American woman gives birth to a dead child. At Harvard, a group of scientists and researchers examine the body of another deceased child. The baby has the skin, the face and the features of a man of eighty. This is a new condition that is becoming an epidemic worldwide. This child was born in New York, but there are similar stories from Bolivia, Australia, seven countries in Europe, Namibia and Mexico being reported to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Forty-two cases in all. They died of old age, and the human race will become extinct unless a cure can be found. One of the scientists at the autopsy is Professor of Biology, Billie Rae Diamond, an attractive woman in her 30s. Now in his 40s, lab assistant Will Robinson pays more attention to the cases than anyone realizes. Later, he visits the self-storage units that hold his discredited research from many years earlier.
Shortly afterwards, Diamond gives the President an update; five thousand cases in three weeks, the number doubling every hundred and sixty-eight hours. After three months there won't be a live birth on the planet. Will visits Diamond with his briefcase full of notes and papers. After Diamond reveals that she is herself nine weeks pregnant, Will explains his hypothesis - a mutation, probably lying dormant within Mankind’s DNA for a hundred thousand years, has suddenly become active. Intrigued at how a mere lab assistant could be so knowledgeable on the subject, Diamond starts to look for clues as to his real identity. As her researchers work through piles of old journals and scientific papers on mitochondrial DNA, the same name keeps turning up - Doctor Robert Plant; degrees in medicine and microbiology; a PhD at 24; a member of the Academy of Sciences; published twenty times by 1974; and then nothing.
Meanwhile, Will uses his friendship with the university caretaker to gain access to the basement of the Psychology Department. There, he locates two long iron cylinders - isolation tanks. He sets up a make-shift laboratory to complete his research. He explains to the caretaker that by following a trail of mutations, he can date the chemical sequence changes in the DNA, and has found that the flaw first appeared one hundred and two thousand years ago. He wants to prove that he was right, that anyone that can find the right chemical key can travel back down through the DNA, through time and space. He's going to go back to try and change evolution. He slides a syringe into his forearm and climbs into the flotation tank. He spirals down a whirlpool of white light and finds himself in a cave, lying in the fetal position and bleeding from his nose and ears. Prehistoric cave paintings are etched into the rock. Will is in the plains and jungle and primordial forest of the rift valley in Kenya - the birthplace of the human race.
He is soon captured by a tribe of Paleolithic humans with matted hair, heavy brows and short, muscular bodies. This is the Tribe of the Tiger. A man in his late 20's - Kip-Kena - is their leader. He orders Will’s death but suddenly an army, mounted on horseback, surges into the settlement. They are heavily armed apes! At their head is a huge gorilla named Drak. He is the Lord of the High Rivers, supreme commander of the ape army. The apes are armed with crossbows and huge steam-driven machines. Trapped in a cave with the human tribe, Will jumps on the back of a horse and gallops towards freedom, Kip jumping onto the horse as it passes. Drak and his apes swing up into the trees, traveling at incredible speed. Will is knocked form the horse as Kip gallops away.
Injured, Will is loaded into a cart and taken along an avenue of towering stone statues of apes, old as ages past; over a massive iron and wood bridge spanning a roaring river; to a city cut into both sides of a jagged ravine; caves and houses and buildings made out of stone. The head of the city - an old gorilla, face gray and balding - watches the returning army with their spoils. Nazgul is the Ghan - the President - of the Council of Elders. Meanwhile, a boat containing the body of a dead ape drifts down an underground stream. A group of mourners are led by an ape wearing a lion-skin cloak. His face is scarred and twisted - he has one cruel eye, the other is just an empty socket. Beneath the cloak, one arm and leg are withered. His name is Ma-Gog, High Priest of the apes, defender of the faith, and keeper of the Book of the Lore. The boat floats out under a huge crouching ape which has been carved out of the face of a cliff, the entrance to the Temple of the Ape.
The apes have never seen anything like Will - taller, more upright and ‘uglier’ than the tribesmen, and with eyes the color of the sea. A female ape, heavy-set with an air of authority, examines Will. Her name is Doctor Zora, and she is assisted by a young male called Ben-Guri. She can see his injuries are serious and orders a vet to carry out a blood transfusion from another prisoner - a tribesman in his late 40s. His name is Aragorn and around his neck he wears a metal ornament containing symbols from the various human tribes. The unusual human specimen having been saved, the door is thrown open and Ma-Gog enters - there's something about Will that fills him with loathing: “All my life I've dreaded this day… Man can't be tamed. Alone among God's primates he kills for lust or greed. He will murder his own brother to possess his brother's land.” He turns to Nazgul - “In the name of God, summon the Council of Elders.”
In his cell, Will hears a scraping sound and sees one of the stone blocks move. Aragorn squeezes through from the adjoining cell. “I am the Ranger of the Easterlings, the Leader of the Seven Tribes. They hope the warriors will come and try to free me”, he tells Will. The ornament around his neck is called the Crescent of Light - the talisman of his rank - and is made from mithral. Will explains that he is seeking a woman who looks like him, but Aragorn has never seen such a person. The two men use the Crescent as a mirror with which to pick the cell-door lock from the outside using a pole with a nail attached to the end of it.
In the Temple of the Ape, Nazgul, Drak and a group of five huge and old apes - the Council of Elders - are gathered. Ma-Gog stands in front of the ancient Book of the Lore and asks them “How many scrolls are there in the Book of the Lore? One-hundred-and-seventy-six, you say - but there is one more scroll, the last scroll, sealed with seven seals, handed down from high priest to high priest.” He reads, “Like through a glass, darkly, I saw the future. Behold - there rose out of the earth a pale horse and the name of the horse is Death. Those that ride on him are beasts, but like no beasts born before. Their limbs are weak but their eyes are as cold as the sea. They are given power over the earth to kill with the sword and with famine and with fire. And let him that hath understanding know the number of these beasts. It is the number of Man.” Ma-Gog tells the Elders Will must be killed or he will cause the end of the apes. Drak takes two huge guards - Max and Hannibal - and goes to carry out the order, but they find the cell empty.
Against the wishes of Will, Aragorn heads to a prison laboratory instead of leaving immediately. The two are saved from a sentry by a condemned ape named Strider, whom they free. Strider had fought another ape when he was drunk, accidentally breaking his neck. “We're not like humans. An ape never kills one of his own. Never.” In the laboratory they find six tribes-people, including Aragorn’s daughter, all of whom carry surgical scars on their heads - they have been lobotomized. Aragorn doesn't say a word; he loads the crossbow and starts to fire, killing them all. As the wolves of the pursuing apes pick up the trail of the escaped prisoners, Will’s scientific calculations prove timely, as the moon obliterates the sun in a full solar eclipse. In the confusion, Will, Aragorn and Strider charge through the doors of the prison on stolen horses.
Back in the modern era, a priest is conducting Mass for a row of tiny white coffins before a congregation of sad-eyed relatives and weeping parents. In her office, Diamond tells her colleagues Luc DeMaupassant and Bob, a young neurologist, that she has made up her mind. “We've got four weeks. The way I see it, there's nothing to lose.” She goes to Will’s laboratory and climbs into a flotation tank.
Drak addresses the ape leaders on the problem of controlling the human population and recapturing Will. “No matter how many we kill, every year they're still here. Why will it be any different with the Blue Eyes? What we need is a final solution. Doctor Zora's brought back patients from a place called Kismatu. I've been talking to her about it. It's a tiny colony farther out than even the northern frontier. Females and babies have been dying there.” Zora adds, “We don't know what causes it - a virus probably. I'd hoped to complete our research before I came to you with my proposal. But, given the circumstances…”
Making their way to Aragorn’s people, Strider tells Will what he knows about Zora's disease. The three fugitives are startled to hear noises in a cave, but Will recognizes Diamond, who has followed him here. Aragorn finds secret messages left for him - Kip-Kena has called a gathering of the Seven Tribes of humans at the place called the Eagle's Nest. Will explains to Diamond that the apes have discovered a disease in an isolated area. They understand its potential and plan to give it to the human tribes. Diamond notes that perhaps they will succeed, given that Aragorn's people are destined to die out anyway, but that the mother of the human race must not be exposed to the disease. It won't seem to work on her, but it will be integrated into her DNA like a time-bomb waiting to go off.
At the gathering, Kip-Kena warmly greets both his leader Aragorn and Will, the man who saved his life. As the six leaders present discuss their options, the head of the Rainbow Tribe has an ominous prediction. “A stranger walks out of the west, the moon hides the sun, armies are on the march - come the new moon, nothing in Middle Earth will be the same.” Aragorn, still crushed at having to kill his daughter, unfastens the Crescent of Light and slips it around Kip's neck, telling him “If I should have had a son, I would have hoped for a man as fine as you. This is my last act as Ranger of the Easterlings.” The humans resolve to fight the apes chasing Aragorn, Will and Strider.
An epic battle ensues throughout the jungle, in which Will uses his scientific advantage to invent gunpowder-based weapons, to devastating effect. The Tribe of the Antelope arrives to boost the human forces, and Diamond sees among them a young blonde ‘mutant’ girl who is clearly the forerunner of modern man. Named Aiv, she has been shunned by her people because of her ‘ugliness’. Ultimately, the ape army has vastly superior numbers and they crush the human alliance, killing or capturing almost all of the tribes-people. Aiv is captured; Aragorn is missing; Kip is killed, and his surviving followers decide to abandon their sacred valley. Will, Diamond and Strider however, must somehow free Aiv to ensure the survival of the human race, and therefore of Diamond’s unborn son.
Strider takes them to a part of the great river where they will be able to cross via a rope, but the river mists clear while they are crossing, just long enough for sentries on the ape bridges to spot them. Will is shot with a crossbow, while Strider gets swept over the Falls to his death. The remnants of the human tribes have meanwhile stumbled across Aragorn and a group of his fiercest warriors, who were chased deep into the forest. He rallies the survivors, and the women of the tribe offer to fight alongside their men for the first time. In Zora’s laboratory, five infected baby apes sit on cots as Zora inserts a syringe into the smallest ape's arm and draws out a cup of blood. She turns to her assistant and asks, “Is the girl animal ready?” In the adjoining operating theater, Aiv is being prepared for infection when suddenly Will appears at the door and takes out the guards. Diamond takes Aiv and dashes for safety. Will tries to buy them some time by distracting the apes.
As Nazgul surveys his city he notices one the steam-driven machines coming in his direction. Too late he realizes the driver is Will, who activates the flame-thrower and sends Nazgul and his guards writhing and plummeting down to their deaths. The Ape City is burning. Ma-Gog stands high above directing the soldiers until Aragorn arrives, backed by the men and women of the Tribes. “For my people”, Aragorn spears Ma-Gog in the gut. “And this - for my daughter!” - he drives the spear into the High Priest's heart. Aragorn turns to see Drak on horseback, thundering towards him. Drak’s harpoon smashes through Aragorn's chest, killing him. After a long chase, Will sees an opportunity to rescue Diamond and Aiv from Drak's pursuit. At the controls of another of the ape machines, Will locks metal jaws around Drak's waist, plucking him off his horse and lifting him up into the air. He and Will look straight at one another, as Drak's finger starts to slide off the harpoon trigger. His severed legs seem to still kick as they fall to the ground.
Some time later on a golden beach Will is on top of a rocky cliff, building something out of iron and rock and sand. After Aiv helps Diamond give birth to a healthy son - the proof that their plan succeeded - we see what Will was building: a sculpture of the head and crown of the Statue of Liberty. He tells them, “It's to make sure we never forget where we came from.”
The script bore little resemblence to anything associated with Planet of the Apes up to that point. It was set in the very distant past rather than the distant future, putting a different perspective on the concept. Aside from the inclusion of an advanced society of gorillas (but no other apes), the story was more akin to a crossover of One Million Years B.C. and Lord of the Rings. Indeed there is far more reference to Tolkien's trilogy than to the Apes book and movies; 'Ma-Gog', 'Nazgul', 'Aragorn the Ranger of the Easterlings', 'Strider' and 'Middle Earth' are all lifted directly. The only connections to the Apes series are 'Dr. Zora' - a sinister inversion of Dr. Zira, a few quotes (“All my life I've dreaded this day… Man can't be tamed. Alone among God's primates he kills for lust or greed. He will murder his own brother to possess his brother's land.”, “An ape never kills one of his own.”), and an incongruous but inevitable Statue of Liberty added at the last minute. There are also references to Lost in Space ('Will Robinson') and Led Zeppelin ('Robert Plant'), and a few examples of the Biblical links suggested by Oliver Stone, with Ma-Gog quoting from the Book of Revelation and Strider recognising Will's Christian prayer as being of ape origin. However, apart from these, and a rather dubious time-travel concept (inspired by the movie Altered States, according to producer Don Murphy), the story is well-paced with plenty of action and adventure and a rewardingly complex plot, albeit one with little to add to the established Planet of the Apes universe.
Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger) was selected as director in January 1995, and pre-production was planned with a $100 million budget. Stone first approached Rick Baker to design the prosthetic makeup, but eventually opted for Stan Winston. A later, uncorroborated, rumor claimed that Ben Kingsley was in line for the role of Will Robinson, the scientist who travels back in time, with Schwarzenegger cast as the leader of the Stone Age men in the distant past - a role perhaps more suited to the muscular action hero.
Yet, while Fox Chairman Peter Chernin called Hayes' time-travel action romp "one of the best scripts I ever read", Fox executives became frustrated by the distance between their approach and Hayes' interpretation. According to Jane Hamsher, head of production Dylan Sellers felt the script could be improved by including comedy elements. "What if Robinson finds himself in Ape land and the Apes are trying to play baseball? But they're missing one element, like the pitcher or something," Hamsher quoted Sellers, "Robinson knows what they're missing and he shows them, and they all start playing." Sellers refused to give up his baseball idea, and when Hayes turned in his final draft in spring 1995, sans baseball scene, Sellers fired him. As Don Murphy put it, "Terry wrote a 'Terminator' and Fox wanted 'The Flintstones'". Dissatisfied with Sellers' decision to fire Hayes, Phillip Noyce left Return of the Apes in February 1995 to work on The Saint. Oliver Stone switched his attention to other film projects, and Don Murphy and Jane Hamsher were bought off the project by Fox. Dylan Sellers' responsabilities were passed on to new head of production Tom Rothman after a car accident in late 1995.
- The 'First Draft' script summarised above is dated 1996, while most sources suggest this project was abandoned in early 1995.
- Some of the concepts in Hayes' script were carried over into the next screenplay written for the movie - Planet of the Apes by Sam Hamm.
- Return of the Apes, at Sci Fi and Fantasy Movie Scripts
- Return of the Apes Review
- The Return of the Apes - Synopsis and Commentary, by Jeff Krueger - 'Ape Chronicles' #21 (1995) at Hunter's Planet of the Apes Archive
- The Planet of the Apes Chronicles, by Paul A. Woods
- 'Monkey Business' (Entertainment Weekly), by Cindy Pearlman
- Tales From Development Hell, by David Hughes
- Oliver's Apes, by David E. Williams - 'Sci-Fi Universe' (July 1994)
- 'The Apes of Wrath' (Entertainment Weekly), by Anne Thompson
- Planet of the Apes Fanclub news page
- 'Monkey Business' (Entertainment Weekly), by Jeffrey Wells
- Killer Instinct, by Jane Hamsher