SPOILER and all. Obviously.
For all of you who spent the last twelve months under a rock: Previously on Earth: There has been an outbreak of a virus which resulted in a pandemic. It inflicted massive suffering and death on a global scale. Humanity was forced to act as one. Ventilators were rare at some point, hygienic equipment had to be shipped across seas, and many, many people have died from severe pneumonia and other afflictions linked to the disease. There are vaccines at this point, the questions now revolve around distribution and equality (as is usual). In spite of all this, humanity is doing okay. There is still time for elections, twitter memes and celebrity birthday bashes, and since most of the stuff we truly care about has been happening online before the outbreak, anyway, not that much really changed. Except now, we can’t hug. So…. For everyone else: Welcome to the show.
Here it is, finally. Planet of the Apes. The third and last chapter in my All Time Favorite Trilogies book, befittingly closing a trilogy of trilogies. I could go on, since there are many more that deserve at least an honorable mention (such as the Dark Knight Trilogy). But this baby is grown and needs to be wiped clean from my drawing desk.
So, let’s get this over with. It has to be stated right at the beginning that I have not seen every movie in the franchise. The 1968 PLANET OF THE APES is a silly, yet brilliant movie, but I was never truly interested in the rest of them. I might be, one day, if the pandemic drags on and I have absolutely nothing else to do. That being said, I consider the 2011-2014-2017 trilogy to be an opus in its own right (even though they are technically reboots), with gifted directors, well-chosen music and outstanding motion-capture performances.
RISE gives us Caesar and a lot of references to the previous movie(s), which I will now simply refer to as POTA. DAWN feels oddly ill-named, but gives us exactly that. A dawning civilization of apes. WAR is intented to bring this trilogy to an end (and give the reason for a planet of apes), and I believe it did this job admirably. The latest trilogy is really a reboot-prequel trilogy, telling the story from way back then in a new and technically highly advanced manner and with some new twists (which, obviously, I may only speculate about). The point where they all meet is POTA, and it really doesn’t matter if you prefer Tim Burton’s contribution or Charlton Heston’s awkward line-reading and tons of machismo – they both make only a slight amount of sense coming from WAR. Given the enormous success of the trilogy, there is reason to assume that they might attempt to redo POTA a second time, with motion-capture and all that jazz, and I couldn’t be more happy if they did.
But before we go there, let’s start wrapping up the third and last installment of my ALL TIME FAVORITE TRILOGIES. I will be relaying them in order of preference, so to hell with coherence, amirite? We’ll start with the last:
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (Apocalypse…Soon!!)
Caesar and his people are forced to consider moving, after Koba (a former ally who was unabashedly and literally gunning for Caesar’s spot as king and who is now dead) had wreaked havoc in an attempt to convince Caesar that humans are not EVER to be trusted. In consequence of his actions, a group of soldiers under a ruthless Colonel now encroaches on the apes in the woods and it becomes clear early on that we are already in the middle of a war, which is confirmed by Caesar later. The ape king is reluctant to participate in all-out warfare, fearing too many apes will die. So, Rocket and Blue Eyes (Caesar’s first-born) set out to find a place for the apes to go. And, lo and behold, the party returns with visions of a “promised land”. And sand. It’s a place beyond a desert.
So, while Caesar hesitates, one of his own betrays him and his wife and his son Blue Eyes are killed at the hands of the Colonel himself. Caesar is confounded, trying to figure out how to get his apes to safety while fighting his own drive for revenge. Visions of Koba reappear frequently throughout the movie and are symbolic as they pave Caesar’s way into conflict. The movie wants to see him break, because Caesar’s main issue is his loyalty to Will and by that extension, to humanity. He goes to find the Colonel in the abandoned military base, where most of his fellow apes are imprisoned by now. I honestly forget how and when that went down. Possibly off-screen. Caesar gets arrested and is nailed to a cross (read that again) outside the cells where his fellow apes are being held and made to work without food or water, building a wall.
We actually meet the Colonel through intercom at the very beginning of the movie, and we are supposed to sense that he is clearly up to no good. Woody Harrelson’s voice, however, goes only so far. You may easily comprehend that Colonel McCullough is, at the very least, a nut job. When we eventually see him, he oversees a camp that is really just a discount Nazi installation, and Woody’s character shaves his head in broad daylight. I guess showing him shave his beard while juggling a rifle would have been too much on the nose. The Colonel, as it turns out, sacrificed a lot to save humanity from being lorded over by apes. He is waiting for a supporting legion from the North. But Caesar, of course, is onto him. He might be beside himself with grief and anger, and also wearing an iron collar, but he is sharp as a tack. The drama between those two alone is worth the watch.
On his way to the camp, however, Caesar and his gang find a girl in the remoteness of desolation. She is afflicted with the effects of the Simian flu. Earlier, it just wiped out humanity. Now, it is mutated and robs humans of their primary means of communciation. The girl (later to be named Nova) is mute (and, contrary to other reports, not deaf), and Maurice, that big brown ball of charisma, sees it immediately. But the girl is also remarkably calm, nimble and poised at the sight of a fully grown Orang-Utan. She’s somehow also the same person that Charlton Heston later gets to schmooze in his cell. Go figure.
WAR is the final movie about Caesar’s journey, which is marked by his identity as an ape, his relationship to humans and the kind of leadership he comes to embody. Caesar’s faith is tested (don’t say I didn’t warn you about Biblical references) one last time, when he feels forced to (intentionally) kill a human being. WAR is also a great movie for you to spot references to Scripture, if you have any truck with that sort of thing. I could have done really well without “Bad Ape” (reference or not; comic relief is always a not), and especially – no surprises there – without the human child. Call me callous, but I don’t ever need an audience stand-in character to show me what emotions to feel in which moment. Bhhr. And yes, I get it. She is also there to make the apes understand the condition that humans are suffering from due to that virus. But staring into her blank face, and having her bond with Maurice, and later with Luca… didn’t warm my cockles. Maybe it did yours.
As I said before, the movie is at its most potent when the ape king and the Colonel tough it out with admiration, disgust and bewilderment at the same time. Nobody would expect Woody Harrelson’s character to show compassion, but he has respect for the ape, not daring to meet him unchained. He knows that the ape has just cause to grind an axe with him, and he’s not committed enough to meet Caesar on equal terms. I enjoyed the movie for a number of reasons, and it is a deserving bookend to an excellent trilogy. But on the whole, the storyline of Woody Harrelson’s character didn’t feel fleshed-out well enough for me. Most of the Colonel’s conversation is fabular (“It is… a holy war”; “I need that wall”), and it doesn’t resonate with an otherwise brutal, yet contemplative movie.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (Crossing the Rubicon)
RISE, in the beginning, suffers from rather one-dimensional characters at a bio-engineering company (Gen-Sys) and a fairly flimsy story. A female ape from the lab at Gen-Sys is shot, after she rampages through the building exactly when the company’s high shots meet with potential money donors for the marketing of a drug to reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Will, who developed the drug, is somehow not being let go and instead of explaining that the female ape was protecting her baby (a mere fact that nobody working in a lab could have been expected to know about), he tells no one and takes the now orphaned baby chimpanzee home with him. His father, who incidentally suffers from Alzheimer’s, names him after Gaius Julius Caesar and the name sticks.
Will quickly becomes aware that the drug that was being tested on Caesar’s mom also worked on the baby chimp, with Caesar being exceptionally smart. Will is tempted to raise him as a child, and who could have blamed him? But there is a problem when a wild animal has membership to a group where he is led to feel equal and is then taken to the forest on a leash and has the brains to question what is happening to him.
Caesar wants freedom, but not in order to be free from the comfort of a loving home. He begins to understand, maybe even on a subconscious level, that his life must be of his own choosing. He starts to rebel against his foster family (perhaps sensing kinship somewhere else?), while remaining unflinchingly loyal to the individual members, Will and his father. After an altercation involving the latter and a neighbor, Caesar is taken to an animal shelter for apes on the hill top (how convenient). At first, he doesn’t understand why he is being punished and wants to go back home. Of course, they don’t explain the legal implications to him, and so he has no choice but to assume that they no longer want him in their home. Caesar’s final step to remove himself from Will is heartstopping.
The animal shelter is Caesar’s testing ground and he quickly evolves to become the leader of the pack. He gets his hands on the drug in Will’s home, brings it back to the shelter to enhance every ape’s brain, then challenges the evil warden (and I’m being told that HP fans will love the character?) and the movie treats us to a masterfully played moment from the original POTA. Caesar and the apes break out of the shelter and pound on the Gen-Sys headquarters, drive out the director and free the rest of the lab apes (including one very scarred and traumatized bonobo named Koba).
Yeah, it takes a bit to get on board with it all. But the scenes on the bridge are nicely played out and we even get to see that Caesar is adapting and improvising quite a bit. (We’re also treated to a nice recall of the Roman Emperor’s military chops.) As the apes make their way to the Redwoods to establish a proper home for themselves, Caesar’s development from a rebellious teen to a semi-mature adolescent is complete. He is reconciled with Will, but the ape from behind the window will no longer ask permission for anything. As the music swells, he makes a dash to the tree top. It’s up and up for him.
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (Some Apes are More Equal than Others)
DAWN is the second movie in the trilogy and Caesar is now the leader of the tribe in his proper right, having established rules (“Ape not kill Ape”) and having taught them a bit of American sign language, which he learned from Will. We get to see loyalties tested and plans derailed. Much as was to be expected from a movie with an Orwellian undertone, this movie is dark. It’s all about power, but not the kind of power you think (well, at least not at first).
Humanity is all but wiped out from the Simian flu. A few pockets of surviving (and presumably immune) humans exist all over the world. And now, one small group in San Francisco is on its way into the woods. Caesar’s woods. Apparently, they’ve been running out of electricity for years, and now they have only two weeks left. Bummer. I cringe at this fact every time, especially in the scene when the electricity comes back on and tablets start to recharge with that distinctive brrheep.
Anyhoo, back to the lecture at hand: Within the woods, there is a dam that can generate electricity, but they need to repair it first. Enter Malcolm, who will become a stand-in for Will and a test for Caesar to re-build trust. The ape king is torn between being kind enough to help humans in need and a general leeriness and desire to protect his tribe. Koba, whose storyline is effectively played out in DAWN, catches on to that gnawing uncertainty in his leader, and winds a chance. Caesar is not impenetrable to Koba’s assertions. Not at all. He just makes a different call. And he pays for it.
At this point, very few apes other than Caesar are also verbal on some level. Koba is one of the few. He explains to Caesar that he is being too trusting with humans. In a powerful scene, he points out what “human work” had done to him. He all but pleads with Caesar, and is being dismissed, because he is too aggressive and Caesar doesn’t share his views. Koba hatches a plan and leaves for the city. And Caesar becomes aware of his absence, perhaps guessing that he shouldn’t let the bonobo get too far out of sight. Maybe it was the exposure that was no longer new and allowed the director and the whole team to delve into the idea of apes having a basic communication in spoken as well as sign language, but Caesar asking “Koba where” is, to this day, one of my favorite moments in the entire trilogy.
Meanwhile, Koba has killed two people with an assault rifle and the movie takes a minute show that the ape is himself unsure at first what kind of fire has just ignited in him. Revenge? Hate? Fear? His sufferings were real, but they also grew a bitterness in him that was inextinquishable. Caesar understood that, even though he suggests to Maurice that he “couldn’t see” that Koba could not forgive. It is worth pointing out that of the two, only one suffered substantial bodily and mental harm at the hands of humans, without the redeeming qualities of nurture, care and respect (at least from what the movie tells us). On that account, I believe it is too simple a claim to make that Caesar was forgiving and wise, while Koba was brutal and selfishly driven by revenge. The bonobo does take a turn, though, and arguably could have gone another way. His trust in Caesar is broken exactly because he knows Caesar has been “cozy” with humans the way he (and other apes) have not been. Being unable to get his message incorporated into Caesar’s doctrine has Koba understand that a coup is his only option. Now, I may have read a whole lot into the plot line (and I have a hunch that there is a huge amount of back story to it all), but what I did read into it was incredibly rewarding to watch. The two apes act out multilevel trauma and healing – something that was supposedly a very human thing to do.
One major drawback of the movie is that it is too long and could have done with at least twenty minutes less screen time toward the end in downtown San Fran. Coming home to Will’s house and finding that video recording – what for? Not that I’m really asking, it’s a rhetorical question, of course, because fan service. But the movie loses momentum by the juxtaposition of the two already extremely opposing views: Koba’s uncontrolled hate of and Caesar’s reminiscence of the goodness in humans. The link between them is Blue Eyes, who is unsure about the world he now finds himself in and, with the help of Malcolm, stumbles back into the one he knew.
The bit about Will being “a good man” always gave me an odd feeling, like it was patched on and isn’t necessary at all. RISE also made a point of showing that Will is not entirely “good” or even above reproof in his treatment of Caesar. The human aspect in this movie felt almost like a tag along. Which is either a testament to an outstanding “ape performance” or writers who really wanted to tell a story that didn’t revolve around humans, but rather humanity. The team around Gary Oldman’s character had more depth to them than Malcolm, the doctor-girlfriend, the angsty teen and the gang of marauders put together. Whoever wrote the scene of Keri Russell’s character coming out of the house, plopping onto the veranda next to her highly sensitive stepson with bloody fucking arms after removing a bullet from Caesar, was clearly not going for either subtlety or plausibility.
That being said, I absolutely love that movie, the constant rain, the world-building of the ape camp and the development of the antagonism between the ape king and his rival is golden. It’s solidly done, leaves nothing to be desired from the first movie and gets you excited for the next installment.
My personal favorites have always crystallized around a general feel that I get from a movie. Logically, DAWN is not the best movie, but it manages to work up a cinematic STORM of imagery, music, atmosphere and acting. And it is just masterfully handled. Caesar’s story arc is what makes the entire trilogy watchable multiple times over. Anyone who leaves the theater untouched by Andy Serkis’ performance must be cold and dead inside. It’s a heartfelt story, but also a wisely spun tale of capture, supposed superiority and injustice, slyly handing down a verdict on our concept of who deserves freedom and why.