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.
“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.