London was burning when actor Andy Serkis landed in his hometown on a global whistle-stop tour to promote the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011. The London riots were at their height as the film opened – a reboot of the iconic franchise about the collapse of human authority and the rise of a new world order.
Trailer: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
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Trailer: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier.
"Camden was on fire," Serkis recalls. "It was extraordinary."
That backdrop of civil unrest, triggered by protests in the wake of the shooting death of 29-year-old Mark Duggan at the hands of police, gave the film's themes an uncomfortably resonant context. "The last film was speaking to some kind of oppression," Serkis says. "People related to the underdog, and the underdog wanting to break free. I think the temperature is absolutely right for [the films] today."
The original Planet of the Apes was based on Pierre Boulle's 1963 French novel, La Planete des Singes, about human astronauts who land on a distant planet where great apes are the dominant species and humans have been reduced to savages. The film offered a dystopian glimpse into our own future, one where man's own madness for war had reduced human civilisation to a cinderblock.
That film's now iconic final scene – the revelation that the "distant planet" was in fact a future Earth, confirmed by the jagged remains of the Statue of Liberty, soaring out of the sand on a remote beach – was intended at the time as a stark political commentary on the nuclear age. "We finally really did it," raged astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) . "You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you, God damn you all to hell!"
Planet of the Apes would go on to become, culturally, one of the most successful film franchises of all time. The first film was followed swiftly by four sequels of varying quality: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), as well as a live-action and animated television series. In 2001, a standalone re-imagining of Boulle's novel was produced, directed by Tim Burton.
Despite the commercial success of that remake, it took a decade for a proper reboot of the franchise to be mounted. Rise of the Planet of the Apes and its sequel, the coming Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, essentially tell the story of the original five films in reverse, beginning with the ape rebellion which was the focus of 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.
For Serkis, who plays Caesar, the anthropomorphic simian who becomes a leader among his people, the role takes him back to his childhood. As a little boy, growing up in the north-west London suburb of Ruislip, he was awed by the original Planet of the Apes. "I remember being knocked sideways by images of human beings in nets being dragged along by apes on horses," he recalls. "And the Statue of Liberty at the end of the movie. Those are, of course, the two iconic images. And the extraordinary architecture of the production design: the bamboo cages that the humans are kept in, and the museum of humans."
The narrative of the new films is closely knitted to the original, and the scripts are peppered with in-universe references, from Caesar's mother Bright Eyes (the same name Dr Zira gave Heston's character in the original film) to the ape Maurice (a nod to actor Maurice Evans, who played Dr Zaius).
Those links to the original film franchise, Serkis says, are very deliberate. "This franchise is still alive today because of the resonance that it had when those films were originally made," he says. "They are not just bang-for-your-buck popcorn entertainment. They are elevated movies, they have something to say, they are social commentary. They’re about something."
In a world where most blockbuster films are content to dazzle but offer little more, Serkis says the original Planet of the Apes offered a provocative assessment of humanity. "They were extraordinarily entertaining. They were amusing. They had humour but they were also very, very dark and they were also political," he says.
In the rebooted story, Serkis' Caesar is the son of a chimpanzee who was used as a test subject for an experimental drug intended to cure Alzheimer's disease. Inheriting its unique genetic properties, Caesar deliberately releases a gaseous version of the drug, enhancing the intelligence of a group of apes (and killing humans, to whom it is toxic), and goes on to lead an ape rebellion.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens a decade after that conflict, with human survivors scattered, the apes dominant and the world's great cities abandoned in ruin. It also introduces a handful of human survivors, including Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a human leader whose desire for vengeance will push the two surviving groups to the brink of war.
"The metaphor of Planet of the Apes is still as strong today as it was when it was originally made," says Serkis. "There’s something about anthropomorphism which is fascinating about the human condition. Despite the fact that we watch thousands of hours of Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, we’ve actually distanced ourselves. We’ve become voyeurs of animals rather than really engaging with them. With these films, where actors can play the roles, embodying apes, the avatar of the ape, you actually bring us closer to them but also shine that light back on the human condition."
Which brings us to perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: its simian stars.
Serkis, 50, is the biggest star of the realm of motion capture, which uses real actors to play computer-generated characters. We met him as the tortured but tragic Smeagol (later Gollum) in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film cycle, and as King Kong in Jackson's 2005 film of the same name. (It is worth noting he is also a talented human actor, delivering notably great performances as serial killer Ian Brady in the film Longford and as musician Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.)
What is delivered to the screen in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, he says, is a world apart from the very first piece of motion capture film he recorded for Lord of the Rings. That was scene 576, filmed at the peak of Mount Ruapehu on New Zealand's North Island. In it, Gollum said to Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin): "This way, follow me." At the time, Serkis donned the motion capture suit, lifted his right hand, saw Gollum lift his right hand on a nearby screen and "nearly died of exhilaration".
The process, he says, has evolved from The Lord of the Rings to King Kong, and more recently to Avatar and The Adventures of Tintin. "Now we’re suddenly seeing full performance capture; capturing physicality, face, audio, all at the same time, with actors all together, acting together, multiple actors. A virtual production ... [Rise of the Planet of the Apes] was the first time really, meaningfully, that we shot outside on location with performance capture technology."
The cumulative wisdom, he says, pays off on the screen. For the actors, the barriers of the technology have been gradually been stripped away. "I’ve never ever drawn a distinction between acting and live-action filming or in the performance capture realm; it literally is [just] another set of cameras filming you," he says. "For the live-action actors, they’ve got to look into the eyes of somebody who is wearing a head-mounted camera, so it’s slightly more of a challenge for them, but actually after two minutes, when you’re looking into each other’s eyes, you forget all that.
"You make that leap, you make that imaginative leap. In the same way that you have a costume fitting as an actor and you might say, this jacket makes me feel like this character, or these shoes make me feel like this and that, you have a similar process. You're still driving the puppet, it's just set in a slightly more extreme way. You can dial it up and down. That’s part of the skill: being both sort of the marionette and the puppeteer at the same time."
Serkis approached the role having studied hours of footage, to develop a natural sense of how chimpanzees moved and interacted. "When they made King Kong in 1933, very little was known about gorillas so Kong was like a monster basically. When I approached Kong I spent time in Rwanda, I wanted to make him as much a gorilla as possible. With Caesar it’s different; I always approached him as a human in an ape skin because he is an outsider.
"Caesar was brought up with human beings, he doesn’t see colour, he doesn’t see that he’s an ape. He has to redefine himself and actually bring the apes together. So I always played him with as much humanity as possible, and more so in this one. And actually physically now, whenever you see Caesar sitting, it’s very much more human."
Though the future is uncertain, it is not difficult to imagine that the new Planet of the Apes franchise, in telling its story in reverse, will end where the original began: on an arid, lifeless world ruled by apes where human society is reduced to dust and savagery. "I think that is the ambition, I would say. Hopefully there’s room for a little more," Serkis says. "It’s a great paradigm. It’s a great universe. There is a lot more to explore."
In that sense, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is, in some ways, the fall of the planet of the humans. It is the tipping point. Serkis says that issue sits prominently in his thoughts, particularly as the father of a son old enough to ask questions. "My youngest son is nine and he is so sensitive to all of that ... I think kids have to be very, very brave. This generation of children are growing up in a very complex environment.
"But having said that, there’s an honesty about acknowledging the fact that we may have had our time and actually it’s not too late. And there is an optimism. This isn’t really an apocalyptic movie with no hope. This is actually about the possibility of hope, about the possibility of working together, of finding peaceful solutions opposed to being absolutest and extremest about what our belief systems are ... I still think that the film is about empathy finally."
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes screens from July 9.