When Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out in the summer of 2011, I was living in my hometown of Lake Placid, New York. I had an apartment near Saint Agnes Church, and, one evening, walked down the hill to the Palace Theater, a wonderful cinema featuring an organ from the silent-film era.
Reggie Clark, the longtime owner, was still alive then, and likely wearing a red blazer and accepting tickets in the lobby, as was his custom. He was something of a local icon. According to a New York Times piece, Clark started working at the Palace as a teenager during World War II and purchased the theater in 1961.
It was a lonely period in my life. I went to the film by myself and remembering walking home, impressed that such an anti-speciesist film had been made, with such a budget, and such stars. Unlike, say, Chicken Run, it wasn’t aimed specifically at children. I wanted to talk to someone about it, but didn’t know who that could be.
There was an activist group operating out of the Albany area, loosely affiliated with a vegan bakery in Troy called Xs to Os, that called themselves Adirondack Animal Rights. I was in touch with them on social media, but I’d only driven to meet and protest with the group on a couple of occasions.
Ultimately, when I got back to my apartment, I shot an e-mail to Steven Best, a professor at the University of Texas, El Paso, and one of my intellectual idols at the time. His academic work primarily provides justification for underground groups like the Animal Liberation Front.
He’d written an appreciative post for his blog about the original film series, but, sadly, he emailed back to say he hadn’t seen Wyatt’s reboot yet. That’s how things are in small towns for those with niche interests or counter-cultural identities. There aren’t always people around who share your passions.
Well, I recently decided to rewatch Rise of the Planet of the Apes and share my passion for the movie here. For what it’s worth, I’ve only seen a couple films from the original series and it’s been a long time. I don’t believe I’ve seen Tim Burton’s much-criticized remake since it was in theaters.
I love the other entries in the new trilogy which Rise of the Planet of the Apes began, but, in my view, the species politics are less clear. As a result, I prefer Wyatt’s contribution to the two movies directed by Matt Reaves, which, I guess puts me in a critical minority.
Using motion-capture technology, the 2011 film stars Andy Serkis as Caesar, a genetically-enhanced chimpanzee, who leads a primate rebellion. Serkis had already achieved fame for his digital performance as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings franchise, but I’d argue this is a more impressive achievement, given it was a leading role.
James Franco is the human face of the movie, playing Will Rodman, a pharmaceutical chemist researching Alzheimer’s treatments on chimpanzees, including Caesar’s mother. While his star has since faded, the late 2000s and early 2010s likely represented the height of Franco’s power in Hollywood.
Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton and David Oyelowo round out the cast. Pinto plays a primatologist who begins a romantic relationship with Rodman. Lithgow performs as Rodman’s father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Brian Cox and Tom Felton show up as abusive workers at a primate shelter, while Oyelowo plays Rodman’s boss.
In the film, Caesar’s mother and the other the test subjects are put down after seeming to exhibit violent tendencies. Unwilling to kill an infant chimpanzee, Rodman secretly brings Caesar home to live with him. The married screenwriting duo of Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa said this was inspired by stories they read about in the news.
“We were looking for a gig and Rick had cut out these articles that fascinated him about chimps being raised as humans in homes,” Silver told the Huffington Post. “And what invariably happens in all these instances is that the chimp grows into an aggressive, powerful animal and things go awry.”
Of course, in the movie, Caesar attacks a neighbor, which results in animal control sending him to a primate shelter. “Then the chimp is always put, like Nim, in some sort of facility and traumatized by that,” Silver said. “And they’re extremely smart sentient beings without even having any extra smarts put in them, like Caesar.”
Jaffa saw the potential for a fascinating thriller in these articles, but, eventually, it occurred to him, they could serve as the inspiration for a reboot of the Planet of the Apes series. In early drafts of the couple’s screenplay, Caesar had a darker character arc, which they compared to Michael Corleone in The Godfather.
Caesar was initially motivated by revenge, which was less satisfying. The couple wanted a more inspirational figure. “It was always structurally a Moses story, but it became more of a Moses story once his character transformed in development to where he ended up,” Jaffa said in the same interview. “In one draft we changed Michael Corleone to Che Guevara.”
I haven’t been able to find a definitive answer, but some sources online suggest the producers considered using real performing apes in the film. If true, I can’t imagine any behind-the-scenes choice that would have run more contrary to a movie’s message. As it was, the film used performing horses, but thankfully this wasn’t the route chosen for the primates.
The computer-generated images — which were created by Weta Digital, the company that did effects for The Lord of the Rings, among others — were revolutionary. Of course, the technology has only improved since then. But Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the film, in my view, which showed one could abstain from using animal actors without sacrificing realism.
The movie garnered positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert was disappointingly ambivalent, though he conceded Caesar was a “wonderfully executed character.” Animal protection groups, ranging from the Humane Society of the United States to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, were rapturous in their acclaim.
Some years back, I wrote an article for Splice Today naming Rise of the Planet of the Apes as my favorite narrative film with animal-rights themes. After it, I listed The Plague Dogs, White God, Noah and Chicken Run. I might quibble with the ordering today, but in the broad strokes, I stand behind what I said.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an excellent summer blockbuster with a surprisingly anti-speciesist message. I hope future big productions make its animal politics look conservative in comparison, but that day hasn’t come yet.