After the less than stellar reception of Burton’s PLANET OF THE APES – which had done well at the box office but didn’t capture audiences the way 20th Century Fox had hoped – plans for a new APES franchise were put on hold. After all, the studio had the new STAR WARS prequels to keep their coffers full, and in 2002 ICE AGE gave birth to a new franchise of animated films. A year after that, X2: X-MEN UNITED would show the studio that there was plenty of money in superhero movies, so why bother trying to bring back a dead franchise for a second time?
In 2006, Rick Jaffa was looking for inspiration when he came across an article about people bringing chimpanzees into their homes as pets. As you may imagine, these people soon learned that having an ape in the home was a terrible idea – as these cute baby chimps grew into adulthood, they became powerful and angry, unable to adapt to living in the suburbs of Illinois. Reading the article, an idea hit Jaffa.
Jaffa called his longtime collaborator and wife, Amanda Silver, and told her what he was thinking – a new PLANET OF THE APES set in modern day America showing the start of the ape revolution. The story would focus on Caesar, the leader of the revolution, following his life from birth up to the first battle in the war for the planet. Jaffa and Silver wrote the script and brought it to 20th Century Fox, who quickly bought it. With the advances in CGI over the previous half decade, Fox saw a chance to really make something unlike any APES movie that had come before. Still, it would be five years before audiences would finally see RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.
When the film was first announced, fans of the franchise were… nervous. Jaffa and Silver didn’t have a deep filmography for people to get an idea of what their script would be like – before RISE, their last produced script was THE RELIC in 1997 and Rupert Wyatt, who came on to direct, had made one film, THE ESCAPIST, which critics neither loved or hated. Word leaked – though the veracity of the leaks was always in question – that the script was chock full of references to the original franchise, almost to a point of annoyance.
After briefly considering using real apes in the movie, Fox decided it would be best to create CG apes. The original APES was praised for the makeup effects of John Chambers, and Rick Baker’s work in Burton’s remake was often held up as the one saving grace of the movie, and the idea of CG apes in a time when, more often than not, CG looked less than great worried fans.
When Andy Serkis, famous for his motion capture work on LORD OF THE RINGS, was cast as Caesar, and word came that Weta Digital, who had created the CGI Gollum, would be handling the apes, fans relaxed some. Along with Serkis, Fox brought in Terry Notary, who had worked as the movement trainor for the ape actors and extras in Burton’s APES. One thing was certain – the apes would at least move realistically.
The casting of John Lithgow, Freida Pinto and Brian Cox was welcomed by fans, but James Franco was met with some resistance. Franco had just had a hit with PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, and for some reason, many people took this as a sign that RISE was going to lean towards comedy. Those people were very wrong. Like, couldn’t be wronger.
Jaffa and Silver’s script, with an uncredited rewrite by Mark Bomback, played out more like a biographical drama than a sci-fi action film, and director Rupert Wyatt handled it as such. The movie, which better resembles CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES more than any other film in the franchise, focused on Caesar’s life growing up in the home of a scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer’s, a disease that was slowly killing his father. Caesar’s mother, a chimp named Bright Eyes, was a test subject for the Alzheimer’s cure when she was pregnant, and the serum took root in Caesar’s DNA, making him more intelligent than other apes.
The motion capture work and CGI effects for the apes amazed audiences. Still, as with the original five films, the heart of the movie lies in the characters and story. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, which plays with a number of themes, including the dangers of genetic testing, familial bonds, and animal abuse, connected with audiences in a way that most summer blockbusters never even try to. At the center of that connection was Andy Serkis’ work as Caesar. Under the CG was Serkis, and his actions, his movements, and his soul are all visible. Along with Notary as both Bright Eyes and Rocket, Karin Konoval as Maurice, Christopher Gordon as Koba, and Richard Ridings as Buck, Serkis brings such life to the apes that it is impossible not to connect with their plight.
RISE is filled with nods to the original films – Brian Cox plays John Landon, which is the same name as one of the astronauts who traveled with Charlton Heston’s Taylor in the original film. Tom Felton, as Cox’s son Dodge – the name of the other astronaut that Taylor arrives on the planet with in the original – gets to say the iconic “get your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape”. Caesar is clearly a direct connection to CONQUEST and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, and his mother, Bright Eyes, shares the name Zira gave Taylor in the original APES when he is first captured. The orangutan Maurice is named after Maurice Evans who played Dr. Zaius. The gorilla, Buck, got his name from Buck Kartalian who played Julius in CONQUEST. But no nod is more important than Caesar’s first words – or word – in the movie. Way back when, in ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, Cornelius tells people about Aldo, the first ape to speak, saying “no” to his human master, starting the revolution that lead to the apes taking over the Earth. In RISE, it is Caesar who speaks those words, and man does that moment hit.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was met with critical acclaim, with focus not only on Weta’s amazing CG work, or Serkis’ award worthy acting, but the story itself. RISE took the concept seriously, seeing that there was more to it than Burton’s action movie take. It brought back the social commentary that was so rooted in the original series, while never losing focus on what it was that audiences wanted – awesome apes. RISE would go on to make nearly half a billion dollars at the box office (worldwide) and give birth to a fan campaign to get Serkis nominated for an Oscar. 20th Century Fox CEO Tom Rothman agreed with the fans, and the studio ran a campaign to get Serkis the nomination he deserved, though they chose to push him for “Best Supporting Actor” which made little sense. Serkis, sadly, did not get nominated. The team at Weta Digital was nominated for a Best Visual Effects Oscar, but somehow lost to HUGO. I mean, HUGO has some great effects, but come on.
In May 2012, Fox announced that RISE would be followed up by the confusingly titled DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, but director Rupert Wyatt, who felt that the pre-determined May 2014 release date wouldn’t give him the time needed to make a worthy sequel, would not return. With just two years before DAWN would hit theaters, Fox needed a director who could get the job done.
They found the right man.