What Fox have achieved with their quasi-prequel Apes series, which sets the stage for 1968 classic Planet of the Apes and its consequent sequels, is nothing short of astounding. The striking image of Caesar (in an Oscar-worthy turn by Andy Serkis AKA Gollum, King Kong and Supreme Commander Snope) looming large over the defenseless sleeping forms of two humans in Rise of the Planet of the Apes captures in a single frame the central conflict that this franchise comes to grapple with: that of man versus beast, nature versus nurture and the many permutations that this power struggle may entail.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt and penned by husband and wife writing team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, Rise lured audiences into cinemas around the world in 2011. After Tim Burton’s failed 2001 Planet of the Apes reboot, most fans expected a similar failure or worse: a lacklustre cash-in on the memory of the classic original, but left the cinemas with their jaws on the floor. Rise opened to critical and commercial acclaim thanks in no small part to the combination of everything audiences love about summer blockbusters: great action set pieces, rising stakes and – at its core – a very human heart pumping gold in the form of Caesar, the first chimpanzee to have his intelligence level raised as high as a human’s.
In Rise we are treated to a heart-warming story that charts Caesar’s growth from a baby chimp into an adult primate after he is adopted by genius scientist Will Rodman (James Franco). Will can’t bear to kill the adorable infant after an experiment, with which he hopes to cure his Alzheimers-afflicted father Charles (tenderly brought to life by John Lithgow), goes horribly wrong. This failed experiment is what ultimately leads to “simian flu”, the apocalyptic plague that sweeps across the globe and leaves most of the human race extinct. But before this dreary turn both father and son take a great liking to little Caesar, and the love and care upon which their relationship with him is built goes on to not only inform Caesar’s development as a character, but also triggers the fatal series of events that leads to the fall of man.
Compounding man’s race to his inevitable destruction, and counterpoint to Will and Charles’s nurturing upbringing, is the sadistic caretaker Dodge (Tom Felton), who sees Caesar as little more than a monkey put there for his personal amusement. It is this very imprisonment – the caging of an adult Caesar in an animal shelter after he injures a man in an attempt to defend the ailing Charles like any grandson would his grandfather amid a neighbourhood spat – that allows Caesar to glimpse the dark side of man in Dodge. Dodge’s abuse of the apes in the shelter is what ultimately leads Caesar to turn on his gods, culminating in a climax that remains thrilling even six years after it first graced screens the world over.
But if there are two moments that truly stand out in Rise, it must be Caesar’s unforgettable first utterance of a human word to Dodge – “NO!” with such power and conviction – and Caesar’s final exchange with Will: standing among a thicket of Californian redwoods at the very end, Will pleads with Caesar to come home, but Caesar points upwards, to the trees and freedom. His response? “Caesar is home”.
Fast forward to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), this time expertly helmed by Matt Reeves (Batman fans rejoice!) with returning writers Jaffa and Silver joined by Mark Bomback. Ten years have passed since the events of Rise and the human race is all but extinct. Caesar and his tribe of hyper-intelligent apes now roam the Californian wilds just outside of San Francisco as protohumans, early hunter-gatherers who organise themselves into spear-wielding warriors led by the titular ape himself, sporting war paint and other decorative items that suggest some evolution in the ape community. Back at the ranch – a new home and ape stronghold that evokes a world our early forebears may well have inhabited – we find the lovable Maurice. This larger than life orangutan and holdover from Rise (who hardly ever utters a word yet cements himself deep in our hearts) teaches little apes sign language, the apes’ primary form of communication.
Among their teachings are the three ape commandments: 1) Ape not kill ape; 2) Apes together strong; 3) Knowledge is power. While the conflict in Rise pivots on man’s ability to be as good as he is evil, Caesar’s three commandments build on this pivot to guide the various levels of conflict in Dawn just as much as the apes’ first contact with human survivors in two years does.
And it is during this first contact, when a terrified human fires a gun and wounds a young ape, that fear strikes like thunder at the heart of the ape community. This action resounds through the wilds, beyond the ape stronghold and into the hearts of the last human survivors of San Francisco like a death knell. With a fragile peace under imminent threat, Caesar establishes contact with Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who is Dawn’s good human parallel to Caesar.
They both have their counterparts: for Caesar, it is Koba, the terrifying scarred chimp from Rise who has risen through the ranks to become Caesar’s second in command; for Malcolm it is Dreyfus (confidently portrayed by Gary Oldman), a man with a military background and nothing left to lose.
While Koba’s scars are physical, Dreyfus’s are emotional, and the duo are the perfect flip sides to Caesar and Malcolm’s coins. Where Caesar (perhaps naively) chooses to trust Malcolm by allowing him to repair an old hydroelectric dam in order to restore power to San Francisco and preserve peace with the humans, Koba has an ulterior motive. His mistrust of war-mongering humans like Dreyfus, who are busy arming themselves in case Malcolm’s plan fails, leads Koba to secretly acquire an automatic weapon that he uses to assassinate Caesar in a false flag attack which he pins on the humans. This sets in motion a chain of events that hold terrifying consequences for either side of the conflict.
Caught in the middle of it all is Blue Eyes, Caesar’s young son, and it is during moments of familial bonding sprinkled throughout the narrative – either between Caesar and Blue Eyes or Koba and Blue Eyes (and at times even humans and apes) – that Dawn distinguishes itself as a thinking man’s sci-fi blockbuster. While Caesar tries to teach his son humility and compassion towards all living things, Koba’s might is right approach steers Blue Eyes down a dark path where ape and man cannot coexist. Not only does Koba’s rise to power spell doom for mankind; with him at the helm ape is soon also pitted against ape.
It is only when Blue Eyes learns that Caesar survived Koba’s assassination attempt that he realises – albeit too late – that the lust for power corrupts man and ape equally, and ultimately leads to war. But in this war, thanks to Koba’s psychopathy, the blame is placed squarely at the feet of ape. Caesar must rectify this wrong and in a penultimate confrontation – to which all of the apes bear witness – he breaks his own primary commandment and kills Koba. Caesar rationalises this action by saying to Koba, just before he drops him into a Nietzschean abyss, “you are no ape.”
Here, where the lines between man and ape are blurred, is where the series becomes truly poignant. We’re left vacillating in our catharsis, not only because Koba and Dreyfus both make utterly compelling arguments for the survival of their respective species (damning as either argument may be), but also because Dawn’s cynicism is equally matched by a hope against hope that in love, trust and family we can find a home; a way to coexist – not only as man and ape – but also as man and man, and ape and ape… In harmony with nature.
Glimpses of Caesar reminiscing about love and life lost in the wake of the simian flu, when he sees an old recording of himself as a young chimp being taught the concept of “home” by Will Rodman, tug at the heart strings. When Caesar mourns at the realisation that there are as many bad apes as there are bad men, we mourn with him. When Caesar weeps for his own family, son and home, we weep with him. There is something that we all, in our humanness, wholly identify with in his hopes and fears.
Finally, when Caesar tells Malcolm that “war has begun” at Dawn’s conclusion, it is as if the final lines of a great Shakespearean tragedy have just been uttered to echo into eternity. We suspect that the climax of the coming war will tear the souls from us, that it will reflect back to us those qualities, both good and bad, that equally terrify and elate us. It will make us realise at once that to be human – to nurture, love and to care – is also to be cruel and violent and envious. This realisation is made manifest in the foreboding final image of Dawn: the camera zooms in, closer and closer, deeper and deeper into Caesar’s eyes, as if to say “Look at you, human. If this is what you are, what can I become?”
The most exciting aspect of the upcoming War for the Planet of the Apes must be the introduction of a human girl that will seemingly be raised by Caesar, Maurice and the rest of the apes that survived the conflict of Dawn. This completes the cycle: from Caesar’s upbringing by nurturing humans, to Caesar raising his own family in a loving new home, to his coming full circle and being entrusted to foster a human girl. We can only hope that we will in the feminine find a new paradigm, a new glimmer of hope that will shine through as counterpoint to the dark cynicism that this series has come to be known for.
Fox has hammered out an admirable marketing campaign, but nothing cuts closer to the bone than the “Compassion” clip, edited to a moving score with voiceover narration by anthropologist and UN Messenger of Peace Jane Goodall. It is all too telling, as Matt Reeves and Rupert Wyatt have managed to plant in the heart of an animal that compels from us a primal fear those very things that make us human. That is why this series of prequels will remain for years to come – and in virtually every sense of the word – an example of the Hollywood blockbuster done just right.
War for the Planet of the Apes hits theatres this coming Friday, and we will have our full review of it tomorrow. Check out the incredible trailer for it until then.
Last Updated: July 12, 2017