Continuity of the Planet of the Apes! Explaining the Timeline
The Planet of the Apes timeline isn't exactly a straight line from beginning to end. We try and help make sense of it all.
This article contains all kinds of spoilers for every movie in the original Planet of the Apes film franchise. You’ve been warned, you damn dirty apes!
With only rare exceptions, most film franchises are content to allow the sequels to be simple retreads of the original. They mine those scenes and jokes and trademark lines that were so popular the first time around, give the story a new setting, maybe, maybe drop in Joe Pesci, and that’s about it. The thinking seems to be that to keep a series popular, just provide the brain dead audience with more of the same.
In the case of the Planet of the Apes franchise, however, producer Arthur P. Jacobs wanted something more, a continuing storyline on a grand scale, an epic twisting forward and back through time, a series of films which, while interconnected and built upon what came beforehand, would still give audiences something new every time.
This is some trick to pull off when you have no through characters and the first three films end with (in order) the protagonist confronted with the very depths of existential horror and despair, the whole world blowing up, and the two most popular characters the series had to offer being assassinated. But y’know, he almost did it, crafting (with a team of clever writers) a near-circular tale that spans almost 2000 years.
Since each entry in the series offered specific dates (or at least clear approximations) it’s possible to untangle and piece together a linear timeline which points out a few of the series’ contradictions and plot holes, but still reveals how damn clever the whole thing was.
1971: The spacecraft Icarus is launched on a near-light speed exploratory mission into deep space. The crew of four is led by Col. George Taylor.
1972: After contact is lost with the Icarus, another spacecraft is launched following the same trajectory in hopes of learning what happened to Col. Taylor and his crew.
1973: The Icarus unexpectedly reappears in the waters off California. Instead of Taylor and his crew, the spacecraft has apparently been piloted by three highly evolved bipedal chimpanzees, Cornelius, Zira, and Dr. Milo. After Milo is killed in a zoo infirmary by a depressed gorilla and it’s learned Cornelius and Zira can speak, the remaining chimps become international celebrities.
The revelation that Cornelius and Zira come from Earth’s future, a future in which apes rule over animalistic humans, causes a bit of a stir, and terrifies the president’s science advisor Dr. Hasslein. When a pregnant and drunken Zira further confesses the world will be obliterated by a war in 3955, Hasslein argues the pregnancy must be terminated to save the future of mankind. A talking ape, after all, could cause all kinds of trouble down the line.
Knowing they are doomed, Cornelius and Zira switch their talking intelligent newborn with a regular old dumb chimp baby at a traveling circus run by the understanding Armondo. As Cornelius, Zira, and the dumb baby are assassinated by Dr. Hasslein (whose theories about time and near light speed travel seem to be coming true), the smart baby, dubbed Milo, is protected by Armondo.
circa 1980: A plague wipes out all the domesticated dogs and cats on the planet. In desperation for pets, people begin adopting apes instead, finding them not only adorable, but clever and adaptable as well, if a little smelly.
1997: Quoting their culture’s Sacred Scrolls to investigators in 1973, Cornelius and Zira predicted the plague and the switch to primates as pets, but they said it would take some 300 years before the apes evolved enough to become viable slave labor. They also said it would be some time after that before an ape named Aldo finally stood up and talked back, uttering the word “no.” This, roughly around the year 2300 according to the Sacred Scrolls, marked the beginning of the ape revolution and their eventual dominance over the planet.
Well, so much for the Sacred Scrolls. Less than 20 years after the plague, pet chimps, gorillas and orangutans are walking upright, wearing jumpsuits, and serving as (often brutally mistreated) slaves for their wealthy human owners.
After keeping him sheltered for nearly a quarter century, Armondo brings the talking offspring of Cornelius and Zira (having at some point changed his name from Milo to Caesar) to Los Angeles for a performance of his traveling circus. Caesar sees for the first time how ugly life has become for his brothers and sisters at the hands of filthy human bastards. Things don’t go well, and Caesar becomes the world’s first talking ape, though instead of “no” his first words are “have mercy.” Then he moves underground and rallies the slave apes to rise up in a violent revolution.
1997-2012: Things get a little fuzzy for the next ten or fifteen years. It’s unclear if the ape uprising in Los Angeles spread worldwide or was contained. At some point there was a nuclear exchange that knocked out LA, but again it’s unclear if it was limited (perhaps in an effort to quell the ape takeover) or a full scale global war. Whatever the case the bombs and the radiation didn’t seem to have a negative effect on the ape population. What we do know for certain is that in that short span of time, apes who had been limited to grunts and hoots in 1997 all gained the ability to speak more or less perfect English.
2012 (estimated): Caesar is now a benevolent dictator overseeing a mostly primitive agrarian community of talking apes and still verbal but decidedly subservient humans located just outside the radioactive wasteland that was once Orange County. Beneath the melted and poisonous ruins of Los Angeles, a small handful of bitter, spiteful slightly mutated humans plan for a war to reclaim the planet. It doesn’t go well, but after it’s all over Caesar for some reason decides to treat the humans in his own community as equals. The equality trip apparently goes on for generations.
2650 (estimated): A wise orangutan known as the Lawgiver writes The Sacred scrolls, which would become the central historical and religious document of ape civilization, as well as its constitution. The Lawgiver himself would come to be held in the same esteem by the apes as Mohammed or Jesus Christ are among humans. Like the Bible or the Koran, the Sacred Scrolls seem to be self-condradictory on several issues, a mix of kindness and benevolence and outright savagery and hatred. But what do you expect from a religious document?
2670-3954: Things get fuzzy here again, but somehow over the next roughly thirteen hundred years humans devolve into a mute, brutish state while the apes remain exactly as they were in physical, intellectual, technological, and fashion terms. There may have been a more widespread and massive nuclear war that somehow only bothered humans (including the apparent obliteration of all but the white race), or it may be the case the ape city set up outside the long-buried ruins of New York is the only active community left on the planet. Who knows? Maybe it’s better not to ask.
3954: Upon crashing into a lake on a presumably alien planet, Col. Taylor tells the two surviving members of the Icarus’ crew the last reading on the ship’s clock indicated the year was 3972, some 2000 years after they left Earth. Later information would seem to indicate the Icarus’ clock was running a touch fast. Understandable, I suppose, considering they were traveling at close to the speed of light and slipped into a time warp of some kind.
In any case after encountering the apes’ civilization things don’t go well for any of the astronauts, some more so than others. Col. Taylor, with the assistance of Cornelius and Zira, survives only to discover he’s crash landed back on Earth but in a distant future following a devastating nuclear war.
At some point not long after Taylor escapes into the radioactive desert known as the Forbidden Zone, the brilliant chimpanzee scientist Dr. Milo, a friend of Cornelius and Zira’s, salvages the submerged wreck of the Icarus and sets about studying what made it tick.
3955: The spacecraft sent to uncover the fate of the Icarus crash lands in the Forbidden Zone, presumably somewhere in what used to be the New York/New Jersey area and not far from where the Icarus came down. This too is understandable considering they were following a trajectory identical to the Icarus and likely slipped into the same time warp.
Brent, the sole survivor of the crash, soon finds evidence that Col. Taylor had indeed been there before him, and shortly after that stumbles into the ape city. Meanwhile, General Ursus, leader of the all-gorilla military, has heard rumors that there may be life of some kind in the Forbidden Zone, and so decides to launch a pre-emptive strike. While Ursus is preparing that, Brent in fact discovers the life in question: a badly mutated and radiation scarred enclave of psychic humans who live under the ruins of New York and worship a nuclear missile as their god. Brent then finds himself locked in the same cell as Taylor, who recognizes the design of the missile in question as the Doomsday Bomb, which means it must have been around in the late ‘60s, but was not used in the war that wiped out NYC.
While all this is happening, Dr. Milo not only comes to understand how the Icarus works, but repairs it as well in hopes of launching it sometime soon.
Well, in short order the gorillas invade the Forbidden Zone, Milo relaunches the Icarus accompanied by Cornelius and Zira, and Col. Taylor, who’d been so awfully pissed to learn humans really had gone ahead and pushed the button while he was out in space, goes right on ahead and pushes the button himself, melting the Earth and creating a shock wave that sends the Icarus into one of those darned time warps, only to emerge again in 1973.
Begin reading again at 1973.