"You really have to see it to believe it." — James Verniere, Boston Herald
"The Summer's best popcorn flick." — Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News
"Serkis as a digital acting pioneer, brings real heart and soulfulness to what would have otherwise been just another special effect." — Jeff Meyers, Metro Times (Detroit)
"As both a simian simile and a wonder of technology, Rise of the Planet of the Apes deserves to be in the company of the great original Kong." — Richard Corliss, Time
"Very nearly close to completely awesome, and is the best sci-fi blockbuster of the summer, in a walk, even." — Glenn Kenny, MSN
"The best film of the year so far." — Tom Shone
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the first live-action film in the history of movies to star, and be told from the point of view of, a sentient animal — a character with human-like qualities, who can strategize, organize and ultimately lead a revolution, and with whom audiences will experience a real emotional bond. The film was impossible to make until the technology, invented for Avatar and now advanced to a new dimension, caught up to the idea behind the movie.
This work is complemented by the unique and extraordinary achievements of Andy Serkis, the world’s foremost performance capture actor, who infuses Caesar with nuance, soul, wisdom and heart.
Another historic accomplishment for the picture was its filming 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 performances — eliminating the barrier between visual effects and live action.
In addition to presenting emotionally-engaging photo-realistic apes, the film’s setting is instantly recognizable and relatable. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an origin story in the truest sense of the term. Set in present day San Francisco, the film is a reality-based cautionary tale, a science fiction/science fact blend, where man’s experiments with genetic engineering lead to the development of intelligence in apes and the onset of a war for supremacy.
“This is a contemporary view of the Planet of the Apes mythology,” says producer Dylan Clark. “It’s a big event movie, but is anchored by the quality of its storytelling, its emotion, and the depth of its characters. At its heart, it’s a character-driven piece.”
The film’s emotional core was a principal draw for the actors, including John Lithgow. “It’s very unusual to have a big science fiction film with a foundation in human emotion and conflict,” says the Oscar nominated actor. “I was amazed by the script’s emotional authenticity. This film takes audiences’ expectations and turns them on their head.”
Much like its storied predecessor, the original Planet of the Apes, the new film uses the science fiction genre to explore bigger worlds and ideas. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes is about our civilization reaching a point of no return,” says director Rupert Wyatt. “Events unfold through the eyes of Caesar, a super-intelligent chimpanzee who at a young age sees humans as being capable of wonderful things, like art and reason. And then he begins to see humanity’s dark side – oppression, bigotry, and the ostracizing of what and who we don’t understand.”
Another key theme is humanity’s hubris – our arrogance in thinking that we can twist, push, cheat, or circumvent the laws of nature, without consequences. “In the original Planet of the Apes, it was man’s hubris that got the character of Col. Taylor [portrayed by Charlton Heston] on that beach, facing the Statue of Liberty and the stunning reality of humanity’s destiny,” writer-producer Rick Jaffa points out. “It wasn’t a quirk of fate or a mutation that that led to that upside-down world.” So, too, does Rise of the Planet of the Apes pit humans against nature – and against themselves – leading to a resolution that sees humans and apes on the path that will take them to a new and shocking world order.
Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist working within a large pharmaceutical corporation, Gen-Sys, conducting genetic research to develop a benign virus that restores damaged human brain tissue. He is committed to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, a disease that afflicts his father, Charles (John Lithgow). Will’s relentless focus – “he’s married to his science,” says Jaffa – has precluded personal relationships, but the connection between his research and Charles’ illness brings the two together, albeit under difficult heart-rending circumstances. “Will is a cold, isolated person,” says James Franco, a recent Best Actor Oscar-nominee for his work in 127 Hours. “Most of his energy is directed towards his work. His father, Charles, is suffering from dementia so he moves into his father’s house, which was once Will’s childhood home, to take care of him. Being a caregiver is a role Will has never had to perform before.”
Just prior to Gen-Sys’ commencement of human trials of a promising and potentially lucrative new drug, ALZ-112, Will’s simian test subjects suddenly display bizarrely aggressive behavior. Management deems the research a failure and Will must shut down his program.
Amidst the confusion of the study’s sudden termination, Will finds himself charged with an overlooked newborn infant chimpanzee – a male, the newly orphaned offspring of his most promising test subject. That young chimp, destined for greatness, is named Caesar.
Will secretly raises young Caesar as his own, at home, while caring for his ailing father. “Will must now be a caretaker, not only to Charles, but to this baby chimp,” says Franco. “As the story progresses Will becomes more of a person and less of a scientist, and starts to care about Caesar more than the success of the drug.”
Caesar is much more than a pet to Will; in fact, Will becomes a father figure to the very special chimp. “In some ways, this is a story about fathers and sons,” says writer-producer Amanda Silver, who penned the screenplay with her husband and writing partner Rick Jaffa. “Will becomes a father to his own father, as well as to Caesar.”
Adds John Lithgow: “The Will-Charles-Caesar dynamic is extraordinary. Will is losing his father to Alzheimer’s just as he’s gaining this ‘child,’ Caesar. That’s the emotional tension that sets the story in motion.”
Caesar leads Will to Caroline (Freida Pinto), a primatologist who serves as Caesar’s vet, and who becomes a key player in both of their lives. “Caroline loves the fact that Will cares for a chimpanzee so much that he almost treats him like his own son,” says Pinto. “She’s dedicated her life to apes, so she absolutely loves them and cares for them with all her heart.”
Due to exposure in the womb to the ALZ-112, young Caesar displays intelligence and behaviors unusual for an ape of any age. Inspired by his observation of Caesar’s unexpected gifts, Will surreptitiously obtains enough samples of ALZ-112 from Gen-Sys, and against his better judgment privately continues his research at home, using his father and Caesar as test subjects. Over time, with the help of the drug, the chimp exhibits incredible cognitive skills and intellect. At the same time, Charles’ symptoms of Alzheimer’s miraculously go into remission. Will’s bending the rules of laboratory trials seems to have worked beyond his hopes. But as he soon discovers, it has taken him – and ultimately the entire human race – on a ruinous path.
“Will has crossed the line,” says Rick Jaffa. “He’s thinking, okay, we can cure Alzheimer’s and increase intelligence. And that’s when you start to play God and that’s when it gets dicey.”
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes explores arguably one of today’s most important issues,” states Peter Chernin. “We have these incredible scientific and medical tools at our disposal, and we’re asking the question, how far do you take them before you’re really messing with nature? What are the limitations?”
Will Rodman pushes those limitations to the breaking point and beyond, to catastrophic results. But before those dire consequences unfold, we get to know Caesar as a youngster and adolescent who, like a human child, is curious about the world around him. However, as Caesar matures, his highly-developed intelligence is countered by the aggressive and dangerous protective instincts typical of adult male apes. Caesar soon becomes too much for Will and Caroline to handle. Will is reluctant to part with Caesar, who has become like a son; Caroline understands Will’s inner turmoil, but she knows that it is impossible for Caesar to remain with him. “Caroline insists that every animal needs open space and that you can’t expect a large animal – even a very special one like Caesar – to flourish inside a house,” Pinto explains. “Of course, she loves Will and Caesar, and understands why it’s so difficult for him to part with Caesar.”
Will takes Caesar to live among other apes within the confines of the San Bruno Primate Sanctuary. But unknown to Will, the “sanctuary” is more like a shoddily run prison – a dumping ground for unwanted or abandoned apes. It is run by Landon (Brian Cox, who starred in director Rupert Wyatt’s debut feature, the acclaimed The Escapist), and Landon’s son, Dodge, portrayed by Tom Felton. The latter’s work in Rise of the Planet of the Apes marks another inventive villainous turn following his role as the bullying Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter film series, for which Felton was recently awarded an MTV Movie Award® for Best Villain.
Because he’s not the physically strongest ape in the facility, Caesar quickly realizes that in order to survive he must assert his intellectual dominance over the fearsome alpha-male ape Rocket, a beastly brooding angry gorilla named Buck, and a psychologically damaged orangutan named Maurice. Caesar soon prevails over the other apes, and establishes a new social order. At a pivotal and electric moment, Caesar stands up and retaliates against their cruel human handlers.
Says Dylan Clark: “We built the structure of our movie around that scene,” the specifics of which the filmmakers wish to keep a surprise. “It will be powerful and emotional.” Adds Rupert Wyatt: “We wanted it be a ‘world-stops-spinning’ moment that plays into the whole idea of evolution and where that can take a species.” That defining instant leads to a daring escape, an epic confrontation at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, a wrenching and fateful reunion between Will and Caesar – and a revolution that will forever change the planet.
In creating Caesar and the world he inhabits, Weta Digital’s mandate, as it was on Avatar and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is to take audiences to worlds never seen before. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, a four-time Oscar winner, explains: “For Avatar, Jim Cameron created a complete fantasy world that no one had ever experienced before. The challenge with RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was a very different one, and in some ways, it was even more daunting. We applied some of the technology we developed for Avatar to create a real, recognizable world – modern-day San Francisco. Everything – the apes, the locations – had to feel genuine because we’re exploring a story that’s reality-based and not straight-ahead science fiction.”
Letteri credits Rupert Wyatt for championing the notion of a reality-based story and effects. “Rupert has instilled the overall idea in all of us that we are bringing realistic-looking chimps into the mix. So, we started at ground zero. It’s a fresh new approach to the Planet of the Apes film series. We’re presenting primates as we know them. We’re giving them an additional level of intelligence and subtle human tendencies.”
For Letteri, Planet of the Apes is in some ways the Holy Grail for visual effects artists, because the 1968 original is a cinema touchstone for both its spectacle and themes. “For me,” says Letteri, “Planet of the Apes is such a classic and beloved film that the idea of working on an origin story - the story about how it all came to be - was interesting, especially being able to focus on the point of view of Caesar as our main character.”
As Weta Digital utilized its state-of-the-art tools to render photo-realistic apes, the world’s foremost performance capture artist, actor Andy Serkis, came aboard the project to infuse Caesar with nuance, emotion, soul, wisdom and heart. Serkis’ contributions to Rise of the Planet of the Apes cannot be overestimated, says Wyatt: “Andy Serkis is our generation’s Charlie Chaplin. By that I mean he’s one of the very few actors around who has fully embraced the available visual effects technology because he completely understands the full potential of what it can achieve. I think some actors are intimidated by performance capture because they think it’s separating their performance from the actual reality of the film, when quite the opposite is true. Andy understands that every little nuance – every breath, every little muscle movement that he gives on camera is visual exposition. Film is primarily a visual medium and if you are able to have your character tell a story with a minimal amount of words, then that’s ideal.”
Caesar’s character arc takes the chimp from a newborn to an adult and the leader of a revolution. Serkis, who gave acclaimed performances as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and as Kong in King Kong, notes that “Caesar is one of the most formidable roles I’ve undertaken, both physically and emotionally. It’s one thing to play a chimpanzee, but to play one from infancy to adulthood – and a revolutionary leader – well, that’s quite another. But it was irresistible to me as an actor.
“Part of the journey is having played him as a toddler and the joy of discovery and then realizing that he has this intelligence beyond his years,” Serkis continues. “He’s picking up on human beings around him and is sensing that he is an extraordinary gifted being and then realizing that the world can be a very brutal place. Caesar has intelligence foisted on him. He didn’t seek it out. There’s a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, without him having asked for it.”
By the film’s second act, “Caesar becomes a prisoner,” says Serkis. “He gets taken away from a loving environment and feels rejected. He is imprisoned in the San Bruno Sanctuary, where he’s put in a cage, surrounded by these disturbed, wild creatures after being rejected by the human beings who have been his parents and loved ones. He’s questioning his identity. Then he finds the strength to lead and unite the other apes and I think it’s then that he moves into kind of the third stage… which is the revolution. He uses his intelligence to galvanize these apes and then his strength and power to lead them. It’s an extraordinary journey for me, as an actor.”
The role’s physical rigors represented a different kind of journey. Precision, training and focus were paramount in capturing the realistic ape movements. Stunt coordinator Terry Notary, a former Cirque du Soleil artist, was instrumental in helping the performance capture actors shape their roles. Notary also contributes important performance capture work to some other key ape characters.
As the performance capture actors broke new ground in bringing emotion and physicality to their roles, Weta Digital, too, was extending its groundbreaking work on Avatar for RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. For the first time, Weta Digital filmed visual effects on practical locations outside the controlled environment of an enclosed stage, also known as a Volume.
Letteri explains: “As we did with Avatar, we used the performance capture suit and headgear to capture the actors’ facial expressions and get the full range of their performances. But here, for the first time, we used performance capture as a fully integrated part of the live action performance. Working on Rise of the Planet of the Apes became all about the performances and the actors interacting with one another. We would take care of the rest – the actual visual effects – later.”
Weta Digital devised a new portable performance capture rig, which could be set up in different kinds of locations. For the first time ever, notes visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon, “we were able to get those performances in direct sunlight.”
Weta Digital’s – and the entire production’s – biggest challenges came during the filming of the film’s climax, which unfolds on, above, along and beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. (The production constructed the massive set outside of Vancouver.) The scene, depicting an epic battle between man and primate, features elaborate stunts, fire, explosions, helicopters, hundreds of cars and extras, and an atmospheric San Francisco fog – as well as the culmination of all the drama, emotion and character interactions.
This scene and the film’s other big set pieces are always in the service of its emotional core and resonant themes. Sums up Andy Serkis: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t feel like a visual effects-driven film. It feels like a powerful emotional story with a big backdrop. The action and spectacle work seamlessly with the drama. And that’s why I think it’s really powerful – because the ‘wows’ aren’t in your face. It’s all about finding realism and truth.”
“The film taps into our most primal fear of the Alpha of our planet being usurped – literally letting another species take over the world – and asks how would that play out,” concludes Rupert Wyatt.