NB: This is your final warning for major Apes franchise spoilers.
Quietly, poignantly, the curtain has fallen on Caesar. The intelligent ape who first led his kind out of captivity in 2011’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes has done so again in this summer’s third chapter. Humanity has, it seems, finally reached its end thanks to a cruel mutation in the virus that already weakened it 15 years earlier. War For The Planet Of The Apes sees Caesar pass into legend; mortally wounded, he dies in the knowledge that his fellow apes are finally safe from harm.
It’s a superb performance from Andy Serkis, who’s now played the role of Caesar for the best part of five years; once again, his turn is a captivating amalgam of cutting-edge CGI and subtle acting. That final scene between Caesar and his old friend Maurice (Karin Konoval) draws a line under what has, perhaps as much as Gollum from Lord Of The Rings, become one of Serkis’ signature characters.
“It was really weird,” Serkis said, when we asked him about shooting Caesar’s final scenes. “I knew we’d have to shoot it one day, and it wasn’t even the end of the shoot. It was about three quarters of the way through. I have a huge affection for the character – I’ve played him through three movies, all the way from the beginning of his life to late maturity, shall we say. So playing that scene with Karin – she’s so extraordinary in that scene as well. We’re both aware that it’s the end of a chapter, and I really loved the challenges of playing Caesar throughout the three movies. And I’ll really miss him as a character, actually.”
Caesar’s journey has come to an end, clearly, but there could be more to come. The apes have arrived at their Promised Land (like Moses, Caesar saw it but never gets to enter); will we see them construct a new, more structured society at last, away from the humans? Was that huge army, buried under the ice, humanity’s last gasp – at least the ones who are armed and capable of fighting? The spread of the now mutated ALZ-113 virus suggests that it is.
It’s surely significant that War For The Planet Of The Apes tells its story from the apes’ perspective more exclusively than any film in the series before it. In Rise, there was scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) who served as a human protagonist, and in Dawn, there was human survivor Malcolm (Jason Clarke). In War, there’s only Caesar; he and his fellow apes may have Nova (Amiah Miller) in tow, but she’s more a supporting character, like Newt in Aliens. This, as it turns out, is no bad thing; War is as much about Caesar’s internal battle as a physical war between ape and human, while the scenes between Serkis and Woody Harrelson’s ruthless Colonel positively crackle with dark energy.
The best thing about the new series of Apes movies – particularly the Matt Reeves ones – is that they don’t hold anything back. There’s seldom the sense that plot threads and characters are being introduced to set up sequels and spin-offs; death is ever-present in the Apes movies. Once a character’s gone, they’re gone.
This means that, from Rise onwards, the new Apes saga has always felt as though it’s been moving forward with purpose – events leading inexorably but absorbingly to the apocalyptic endgame we saw in the 60s and 70s movies. As we’ve seen with the Star Wars and Alien franchises, making prequels can be a bit of a poisoned chalice: creating an interesting journey is difficult when we already know the destination. Yet the nature of the conflicts in the Apes films have always been compelling to watch; whether it was Caesar fighting for his freedom in Rise, Koba plotting against the humans in Dawn, or Caesar’s vengeful mission in War, there’s been a simmering tension in the Apes films that was glaringly absent from the Star Wars prequels.
As Matt Reeves told us before War’s release, it’s the question of how the apes wind up taking over the planet that makes this new series so engrossing.
“To be able to tell the story about the ‘how’ is incredibly compelling to me,” Reeves said. “It’s more about characters, and our motivations, and our nature. And what it is about us that draws us to violence. We have to answer those questions, because we already know the ending. The story is not about what happens, it’s about how it happens.”
When it comes to the question of how Earth has fallen into the hairy hands of the apes, the 21st century series has differed from the 60s and 70s series, of course. In those, chimpanzees were kept as slaves and proliferated among humans; when our species largely obliterated itself with the bomb, the apes evolved and, over the course of generations, gradually took over.
Things are a little different today. A well-meaning yet doomed attempt to cure Alzheimer’s led scientist Will Rodman to inadvertently create a virus which is deadly to humans yet gives super-intelligence to apes. From the moment the virus spread at the end of Rise, the humans’ fate was sealed – and in War, we learn that fate has dealt humanity yet another cruel blow. Fifteen years after the initial outbreak, the virus has mutated, and now creates new symptoms: infected humans lose their speech and capacity for higher reasoning. In short, the virus reverses millennia of evolution at a stroke.
The stage is set, therefore, for the events of 1968’s Planet Of The Apes. The lapse into a kind of pre-stone age bestiality – a process that previously took 5,000 years – will instead take a few short decades. Apes haven’t yet built the pre-industrial towns and cities we see in Franklin J Schaffner’s original movie, but it’s surely only decades away.
The new Apes series’ stunning digital effects also raise a tantalising possibility. In the original novel by French author Pierre Boulle, Monkey Planet, the apes live in a recognisably modern society of cars, cops and skyscrapers; when producer Arthur P Jacobs optioned the novel, this backdrop was soon cast aside to keep costs down. There’s no reason to think that future Apes films couldn’t depict a civilisation like the one Boulle imagined; indeed, if Fox does continue the franchise, it could show how the apes evolve from a nomadic, tribal society to a modern one. With the humans gone, could the apes move into the cities they abandoned?
In the 60s Apes films, the gulf of time between the human and apes civilisations meant that all knowledge of post-industrial technology had been forgotten. Even the wisest of the apes scoffs at the idea that astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) arrived on their planet via a space craft. The new Apes could easily side-step this; in War, we see that helicopters and armoured vehicles – not to mention the fuel that powers them – still exists. There’s little reason why the apes, after waiting a few years for the Simian Flu virus to take its course, couldn’t simply move into the cities and take over.
The obvious direction for the franchise to go might be a partial remake of the original 1968 Apes, where an astronaut lands and finds that the whole planet’s gone to hell. Remember that, in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, we briefly see on a television that a craft called the Icarus has taken off on a mission to Mars; a reference to the craft that took Heston on his fateful journey. A newspaper in a later scene states that the Icarus is “lost in space”. While it could be left as an Easter egg, the series’ producers at least have the option to return to it in a later movie.
It’d certainly be interesting to see Planet Of The Apes retold from the apes’ perspective rather than a human’s. But wouldn’t that feel a little superfluous after the current trilogy has done so much to make the franchise feel original again? Certainly, Matt Reeves seems more interested in seeing the story head in its own direction rather than simply remaking the original – as Tim Burton sort of did with his Planet Of The Apes movie.
“The original movies are only there as a trajectory for this series,” Reeves told us. “We’re not beholden to anything. Anything we do is just about getting us closer to that idea, but we don’t have to achieve anything specifically accept the exploration.”
Of course, Reeves is moving onto other things now that his latest Apes movie is finished – he’s making The Batman for Warner – but given just how successful his take on the franchise has been, we’d be surprised if he didn’t at least continue to consult on future stories in some way. It certainly seems that Reeves has an idea of where the Apes franchise could go beyond Caesar – and Bad Ape, the innocent, talking ape played by Steve Zahn, offers a small clue.
“Bad Ape is actually a seed that is a forest,” Reeves told Yahoo. “In this story we see that the idea is that the world is revealed to be much larger than the apes ever imagined. There are apes who grew up without the benefit of Caesar’s leadership and they might not just be pockets of one or two, there might be actually colonies, and might that be where future conflicts come for Caesar’s apes? They have the benefit of the integrity that he’s instilled in them, so what’s going to happen when they encounter others who didn’t have that?”
To borrow Reeves’ term, the seed is planted, then, for a future where pockets of intelligent apes – maybe apes as chatty as Zahn’s character – have sprung up elsewhere on the planet. How have they adapted? Might they be more advanced, having taken over abandoned cities and technology? If so, might a new war break out – not between humans, but rival ape societies?
For Andy Serkis, the death of Caesar doesn’t necessarily mean the end of his involvement in the Apes franchise. Thanks to the wonders of performance-capture, he could potentially play another character in the saga, assuming the role’s sufficiently different from the noble, introspective Caesar. The bigger question, Serkis says, is who could take over from Matt Reeves as the series’ new director.
“It’s not necessarily [the end of my involvement], no,” Serkis told us. “There’s been no actual discussion about what exactly happens next, but there has been discussion about the possibility of further adventures. As I say, I love them as a metaphor, and I know Matt’s now going on to do other things, but the thing is, it has to be in the right person’s hands. It has to be someone like Rupert [Wyatt, Rise director], like Matt, someone who understands, who knows they’re not just making blockbuster entertainment, otherwise it defeats the object.”
Whatever happens next – and even if, assuming Fox made the bizarre decision to wind up the Apes story here – War For The Planet Of The Apes leaves the story in a mournful yet satisfying place: for our money, the best trilogy of films in the history of genre cinema. In Reeves and Serkis’ hands, Caesar has become a figure of mythical proportions. His fellow apes are safe; his journey is complete. And what an extraordinary journey it’s been.