The original Planet of the Apes (1968) was one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. Arguably, it was the greatest science fiction film. Rarely has a film in any genre ever touched on so many of the pressing issues of the day simultaneously… questions that dominated people’s nightmares in 1968 and sometimes still do. Mostly obviously, there was fear of war and peace, and nuclear annihilation, which the ending of the film delivered on like a punch to the gut. But there was so much else: questions of faith vs. science (ape faith vs. ape science), treatment of animals (in this case, with humans as the “animals”), and finally—in a sly reference to Charles Darwin—a new version of the Monkey Trial, which made famous phrases such as “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.”
Here, in a beautifully ironic twist, the monkeys (or rather the apes) had gained control and considered comparison to a human as a grave insult. Charleston Heston, in his manliest manly form, faced his own kind of “monkey trial.” This time apes were the prosecutors, judges, and jury. Oh, the irony. Oh, the humanity! (Or not.)
The original Planet of the Apes was such a triumph that producers have been trying to recreate “That Old Ape Magic” ever since. First, a set of sequels in the 1970s had the occasional interesting moment but otherwise gave a bad name to sequels. 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes seemed to bring the saga to a much needed, merciful end… until a new version of Planet of the Apes tried to reboot the series in 2001. That film largely failed, but 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, featuring James Franco as a sympathetic ape psychologist, rebooted the series yet again.
The newest ape film is clearly a sequel to the 2011 Rise film, ignoring the mistake that was the film before it. When last we saw the saga, a super-intelligent ape named Caesar had escaped captivity and set up a new ape society in the mountains north of San Francisco. Meanwhile, military scientists had created a mysterious virus that escaped the lab and threatened to wipe out 99% of the human race. At the end of that film, we saw what was coming: the chimp would inherit the earth.
In the newest film, a few thousand human survivors have gathered in San Francisco and are trying to turn the power back on. (Only in that way, can human life be worth living.) To do so, they’ll have to repair a power station deep in ape territory. The apes don’t want no trouble, but they see humans as warlike killers. One of the humans even proves them right. As for electrical power? Hey, we’re apes… we don’t need no stinkin’ electricity!
Technology is the thing that makes this film better than most of the ape movies since 1968… or rather, technology and art working together. Whereas actors in the original ape movies had to wear heavy ape costumes, today’s technology utilizes an impressive CGI process that replaces ape costumes with computer-generated pixels. So an actor like Andy Serkis can give a beautiful performance, and motion-capture technology catches the movements of every single muscle on his face, translating it perfectly into his ape character.
The result is astonishing, but more than that, it’s powerful and moving. Serkis, as ape leader Caesar, gives us a portrayal as nuanced, commanding, and sympathetic as any human in the film. And yet… all his gestures and movements are that of an ape. The end result is that we relate to Caesar deeply as a character, transcending the differences between his species and ours. And yet he is fully a character in this fictional world. As impressive as his work was as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he’s even more impressive here.
Interestingly enough, this film returns to questions of war and peace, alluding to the 1968 film. Caesar, the ape leader with a conscience, doesn’t want war with the humans. But he ultimately finds he can’t contain the warlike members of his side any more than those in the human camp. The tragedy is that apes are just like us… too much like us, with our capacity for war and violence. In the ape headquarters, some laws have been scribbled, including “APE NO KILL APE,” but this finally becomes reminiscent of “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL” in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Let’s just say the law can be made flexible when needed.
There are some solid human performances, although nothing so commanding and charismatic as Charlton Heston. Jason Clarke—in what is perhaps his biggest role to date—plays the sympathetic hero of the human faction. He’s the human who wants to live with the apes in peace. Keri Russell, in an unusual casting choice, plays his patient, peace-loving wife.
But the most interesting of the human performances is that of Gary Oldman, who seems to be reprising his role of Commissioner Gordon, if somewhat less sympathetically than in the Batman movies. Early on, his character seems reasonable enough. But once some of the renegade, warlike apes get their hands on machine guns and learn to use them immediately (an admittedly weak point in the script), Oldman’s character freaks out and decides it’s time for apes to die.
"They're ANIMALS!" screams Gary Oldman. Yes, but as Pee-Wee Herman might have said, "I know you are, but what am I?" Or rather, what are we, but animals who know how to commit mass destruction???
Again, the theme is: Even when there is well intentioned, enlightened leadership, how easy it is for two sides to slip from an uneasy détente into all-out war. Director Matt Reeves has created an impressively realized version of a dystopian future here, with all the apes well differentiated, some supporting and some undermining Caesar. But Caesar himself is the masterpiece at the center of this (perhaps) overly long war film.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the forest, the apes are at it again. Help us, Dr. Zaius!