Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Making of a Prequel

The eagerly awaited sci-fi “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is considered to be the first live-action feature in film history to tell the story from the point of view of a sentient animal named Caesar.

As the star of the film, Caesar (Andy Serkis) provides real emotional bond with the audience, even a point of identification.  An ape with human-like qualities, Caesar can strategize, organize and eventually lead a whole revolution.

Some background is in order. 

Planet of the Apes Series

In 1968, two major sci-fi works were released: Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes” and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Though intended as a project for Blake Edwards, the film version of Pierre Boule’s sci-fi novel was directed by Schaffner, who two years later won the Best Director Oscar for “Patton.”

Charlton Heston played George Taylor, one of several astronauts on a long mission whose spaceship crash-lands on a remote planet, seemingly devoid of intelligent life. Soon the astronaut learns that this planet is ruled by a race of talking, thinking, reasoning apes.

In this peculiar, topsy-turvy society, the human beings are grunting, inarticulate primates, penned-up like animals.

When ape leader Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) discovers that the captive Taylor can speak, he insists that the astronaut be killed. But sympathetic ape scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) risk their lives to protect Taylor.

Jointly, they go on to discover the history of their planet, which Dr. Zaius and his minions guard secretly and jealously. In the end, it is Taylor who stumbles on the truth about the Planet of the Apes: “Damn you! Damn you! Goddamn you all to hell!”

The movie was scripted by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson, a blacklisted author who had previously adapted to the big-screen the 1957 Oscar-winning “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” directed by David Lean and also based on Pierre Boule’s novel.

The original 1968 picture spawned four big-screen sequels, as well as two TV series, one live-action, the other animated.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

When the story begins, Will Rodman (played by Oscar-nominee and controversial Oscar host James Franco) is a scientist working within a large pharmaceutical corporation named Gen-Sys, conducting genetic research to develop a benign virus that restores damaged human brain tissue.

As his name suggests, Will is committed to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, a debilitating disease that affects his father, Charles (John Lithgow).  Will’s focus is relentless—he’s practically married to his science—which has precluded any meaningful relationships.  But for the first time, the connection between Will’s research and his father’s illness has brought the two men together in a meaningful way, albeit under difficult and tense conditions.

Technological Determinism

 Needless to say, the film was impossible to make until the technology, invented for James Cameron’s “Avatar, (also Fox) and now advanced to new dimensions and striking heights, caught up to the idea behind the movie.

This work is made possible by the unique and extraordinary achievements of Andy Serkis, by now the world’s foremost performance capture actor, having done “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy as well as the 2005 remake of “King Kong” (both helmed by Peter Jackson).  Serkis infuses Caesar with body, heart, and soul, not to mention nuance, wisdom and wit.

Another historic record is its use of visual effects and performance capture work on practical locations outside the controlled environment of an enclosed stage. This allowed the performance capture work to be fully integrated with the live action performance, thus eliminating the usual barriers between visual effects and live action.

In addition to presenting emotionally-engaging photo-realistic apes, the film’s setting is instantly recognizable and relatable.

Contemporary View

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is an origin story. Set in present day San Francisco, the film is a reality-based cautionary tale.  It’s a blend of sci-fi and sci-fact, in which man’s experiments with genetic engineering lead to the development of intelligence in apes and the onset of a war for domination and supremacy.

“This is a contemporary view of the Planet of the Apes mythology,” says producer Dylan Clark. “It’s a big event movie, but it’s anchored by the quality of its storytelling, its emotion, and the depth of the characters.  At it’s heart, it’s a character-driven piece.”

The film’s emotional core was a principal draw for the actors, including John Lithgow, who plays Will’s father.  Says Lithgow: “It’s very unusual to have a big science fiction film with a foundation in human emotion and conflict. I was amazed by the script’s emotional authenticity. This film takes audiences’ expectations and turns them on their head.”

Much like its predecessor, the original “Planet of the Apes,” the new film uses the sci-fi genre to explore bigger worlds and bigger ideas.”

Says director Rupert Wyatt: “The new movie is about our civilization reaching a point of no return.  Events unfold through the eyes of Caesar, an ultra-intelligent chimpanzee who at a young age sees humans as being capable of wonderful things, like art, science, and reason.  But then he begins to see the dark side of humanity, oppression, bigotry, and ostracizing what and who we don’t know.”

Humanity’s hubris

Another key issue of the film is the hubris of humanity, our arrogance in thinking that we can twist, push, cheat, or circumvent the laws of nature without any consequences.

Writer-producer Rick Jaffa points out that “In the original ‘Planet of the Apes,’ it was man’s hubris that got the character of Col. Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) on that beach, facing the Statue of liberty and the stunning reality of humanity’s destiny. Jaffa holds that ‘it wasn’t a quirk of fate or a mutation that led to that upside-down world.”

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” also pits humans against nature, but also against themselves, leading to a resolution that might see humans and apes on path to a new, shocking world order.