The classic twist at the end of the original Planet of the Apes (1968, dir. Franklin J. Schaffner) is more than just shocking. Seeing the half-buried Statue of Liberty means that advanced apes did not create their planet’s power structures, rather they seized them from human beings. The message is clear – our time as the dominant force on this planet is limited.
This is the central thesis behind the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy.
For a decade, it seemed that the final nail in the Apes coffin was Tim Burton’s disastrous 2001 remake of the original film. The announcement of a prequel-reboot in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, dir. Rupert Wyatt) was not greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm. In a world of unwanted reboots and outdated franchises, no-one cared about seeing this corny relic from the 60s being dragged out once again. The surprising success of Rise (grossing $481 million worldwide) was followed up by the staggering Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014, dir. Matt Reeves), and the trilogy was soulfully rounded up by War for the Planet of the Apes (2017, dir. Matt Reeves). We had been given three strong, character-driven films, rich with conflict and themes.
To what do we owe the trilogy’s success?
Wyatt and Reeves are great directors, and a lot of praise is rightfully given to Andy Serkis’ tour de force motion-capture performance as ape revolutionary Caesar (as well as the rest of the ape cast and the team at WETA digital).
But underpinning any great film is a great story, and any epic story is filled with constant struggle. I’d argue that what makes the Apes trilogy so compelling are the dramatic questions behind each film, the fundamental narrative conflict that constantly weighs down on our characters. Through each dramatic question we trace an epic journey from Caesar’s birth in Rise to marking a home for the apes in War. So what are these dramatic questions?
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
In a summer dominated by Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter, Rise was warmly received as a refreshing film in a bloated movie climate. Of course no-one really cared about how our world became dominated by intelligent apes, but screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver made a compelling case for why we should. Fascinated by genetic engineering and stories of chimpanzees not adapting to human environments, they grafted their story onto the dormant Planet of the Apes franchise. In a rare occurrence for a blockbuster, the idea came first.
What is Rise about? What is its ‘dramatic question’? The film succeeds as a dissection of character, looking at the identity crisis of its central ape figure. The film asks, “Who is Caesar?”
Discovered as a baby in the cage of its mother, a test monkey for a San Francisco biotech company, Caesar is taken home and raised by Dr William Rodman (James Franco). Rodman studies Caesar’s rapid cerebral acceleration due to his inheriting of his mother’s intelligence from the Alzheimer’s medicine that was being tested on her.
But as Caesar grows up, he starts to question his place in the world around him.
As a youth, Caesar is tied to Rodman, and adopts the role of a glorified pet. He is tied to a leash when outside and when he is first allowed to climb trees he bends his head down and extends his hand to Rodman. “He’s asking you permission,” primatologist Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto) says. “It’s a supplicating gesture.” The power dynamics of this relationship are clear. Caesar is an animal in captivity, a science experiment under supervision.
Rodman certainly respects Caesar, and understands how advanced he is – he teaches him sign language, even dresses him in clothes. This makes him more human than any other pet.
This is also why Caesar feels uncomfortable when he is reminded of his animal status. At one moment he comes across a pet dog in the forest who starts barking at him. As Rodman yanks on Caesar’s leash, the ape stares back at his uncomfortable reflection, making him wonder if he too is an animal who must always submit to his master. Yes, he may be able to swing from high branches at his leisure, as we see in a fast-paced montage, but his longing, unhappy expression looking over San Francisco shows us he really wants freedom.
When Caesar lashes out at a neighbour for harassing Rodman’s Alzheimer-afflicted father (John Lithgow), he is taken from his home and placed in an abusive primate sanctuary. In his first encounter with other apes, one of them rips Caesar’s shirt from him, robbing him of the signifiers of uniqueness. He is seen as an outsider by his own kind, and rejected by the humans, stuck in an uncomfortable suspension between both species. He soon realises, however, that he belongs with the apes, and his intelligence is what makes him perfect to be their leader.
He breaks a gorilla out of isolation, shows his strength in fights, and rejects Rodman’s attempt to bring him back home when he sees Rodman wants to put the leash back on him. It is with apes he establishes his mantra, “Apes alone weak. Apes together strong.”
The weakest aspects of the film are certainly the stretches of human characters in laboratories talking nonsensical science jargon. Will’s biotech boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) is a man of comical arrogance, who seemingly single-handed authorises the entire production of a drug without checking if one of the side-effects is a devastating deadly virus (it is). But it’s inherently ridiculous explaining how monkeys get smart, as soon as you have to explain the technicalities of how animals gain intelligence, you’re in silly territory.
It’s a testament to the motion capture team that we’re able to empathise with Caesar’s struggle for belonging, we read the finely detailed emoting in his expressions as he finds solace with his people.
Every decision he makes is filtered through the struggle to find out where he sits in this world as the first of a new kind, and the victory of the ape revolution makes clear the answer to the dramatic question.
Caesar is not an experiment, nor a pet, he is not human nor just an ape.
He’s a leader.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Caesar’s status as leader is constantly scrutinised in the sequel.
Ten years after the initial ape revolt, only one in 500 million people have survived the Simian Flu that triggers advanced intelligence in apes but is deadly to humans. They live in clustered communities, running out of fuel and without connection to other survivors. The apes remain in the forests, hunting and building their community, decidedly separate from the humans. But when a band of them encroach on the ape colony in order to use a hydroelectric dam, Caesar’s integrity as protector of apes is called into question, and the dramatic question is poised, “Can apes and humans peacefully coexist?”
The ultimate failure of them getting along is signalled in the goals of each side. The apes, wary of humans and fiercely protective of their own kind, abide by strict rules of conduct in their attempt to form their own society, ‘apes together strong’ and ‘ape not kill ape’. But it’s difficult, Dawn argues, to establish a society when you are degraded and vilified by the rest of civilisation. The humans, who still blame the apes for the Simian Flu, cling to each other in fear of being overwhelmed by the outsider apes.
As their Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) tells the sympathetic Malcolm (Jason Clarke), “We founded this place, you and I, on the idea that power would lead us back to the life we once had.” Unlike the apes, who want to progress forward, the humans want to go back to the way society was structured before – but this is a society where they were the dominant power, one without other advanced intelligent life to share it with.
The audience is stuck in a moral gulf; we want to see the successful growth of the apes community because we empathise with their struggle for fraternity, but we don’t want to see the eradication of the humans because that’s us. This uncomfortable position is extrapolated fantastically by director Matt Reeves and the cast, every scene with apes and humans together is filled with an electric, unstable tension, and the palpable fear that everything could collapse into chaos.
So who’s fault is it when our two feuding clans turn to violence, the humans or the apes?
Like most conflicts, it’s down to opposing ideologies. While Caesar advocates for peace unless the apes are aggravated, insular dissension ultimately undoes this. One of his counsel, Koba (Toby Kebbell), harbours resentment towards the humans for the tests they performed on him in captivity. He advocates for violence and vengeance. “Scars make you strong,” he tells Caesar’s son Blue Eyes. Signifiers of power are important to Koba, and he is dissatisfied at Caesar’s willingness to help the humans. Caesar, in Koba’s eyes, is weak, and so he makes an attempt on Caesar’s life and blames the humans, prompting a breakout of war. The majority of the humans don’t need to be manipulated to fight the apes, any sign of aggression on the simians’ part only confirms their prejudices against them.
“We are survivors,” Dreyfus tells soldiers on the front line. “Now they may have got their hands on some of our guns but that does not make them men. They are animals!” How was coexistence ever possible when you see your opponents as inherently inferior?
The apes story unfolds like a Shakespearean tragedy in sign language and guttural exhalations. When a band of humans help Caesar heal, he returns to fight Koba, who tells him, “Caesar has no place here!” But Koba’s violent ideology is not as strong as he thinks. Caesar has come back from the dead, he has been made a legend, if anything could prove him the dominant figure in the colony, it’s this.
But still, vulnerabilities start to show. When Koba is defeated, Caesar has the choice to spare Koba or let him die.
“Ape not kill ape,” Koba reminds him. “You are not ape,” Caesar replies, and lets him fall to his death. Caesar makes this choice in the knowledge that he needs to reassert his strength amongst his people, and must eliminate potential traitors who threaten his cause. But once you start making exceptions, once your fallibility is made obvious, they’re hard to forget. Coexistence with the humans is no longer Caesar’s priority, the last we see of them is Malcolm slinking off into the darkness while Caesar stands proudly amongst his kind in the sunrise. Now finding a home and safety is the apes’ only concern, but cracks have begun to show in their leader.
How will they cope if something happens to Caesar?
War for the Planet of the Apes
“Can the apes survive without Caesar?”
That’s the dramatic question at the heart of War. The film acts as the ultimate test of everything Caesar stands for, throughout the film he is repeatedly traumatised, demoralised and dehumanised. On the run from armed forces for two years, Caesar fights a war he never started, driven by a desire to protect his kind. “I fight only to protect apes,” he tells us.
The humans have bought into Caesar’s legendary status, thinking if they kill him, they eradicate the ape cause. “First Caesar die, then all of you die,” Red, one of Koba’s followers fighting for the humans, says. Caesar is haunted by visions of Koba and the mistake he made by not sparing him.
When the Kurtz-esque Colonel (Woody Harrelson) raids their home and kills Caesar’s wife and child, he leaves his colony to seek vengeance, and along the way discovers the Simian Flu is mutating, robbing humans of speech and intelligence.
When Caesar walks away from his kind, the apes stare in panicked disbelief – how can they go on without Caesar leading them? “Caesar, you are our leader!” his right-hand orangutan Maurice tells him. “We can’t leave without you!” And when Caesar finds himself imprisoned by the Colonel, he is separated from his colony, locked up in isolation and made to stare at the crowds of apes he thinks he’s failed. Caesar’s legendary status starts to crumble around him.
I’ve not seen a blockbuster like War for the Planet of the Apes for a long time.
All at once it is a war movie, a post-apocalypse film, and a prison-break story. It genuinely amazes me how the machinations of Hollywood could be grappled to produce a film so starkly beautiful, tender and profound. Caesar’s scene presence is matched by a quietly unhinged Harrelson, matching each other off in their devotion to their extreme causes.
It is a lonely war, fought by broken people. Technology and performance blend so seamlessly together, you’ll find yourself empathising for the animals more than you would for most humans.
It’s the belief that his apes have in him that revives Caesar and his revolutionary spirit, and it proves to him they will fight for him whether he is able to or not. And when the apes finally end their pilgrimage and find a haven, Caesar gets one glimpse at the future of his people.
In a bittersweet, tragic moment, he knows they will survive without him.
Intelligent blockbusters, specifically intelligently scripted ones, may be rare, but not impossible. I’m in awe of the sincerity and commitment paid to this dormant franchise in sculpting an epic journey of pain and loss from such corny origins. The apes are settlers in a foreign world, and their right to sanctuary rings loudly across the trilogy.
All three are compelling watches, and rank amongst the best trilogies of all time.