2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an unlikely success in rebooting the 40-year-old series that had always been cursed with having an inherently ridiculous premise that, after the initial 1968 allegorical sci-fi classic, could never truly be taken seriously. The 2011 prequel tackled that problem by finally having technology advanced enough that we could actually see the apes existing in reality, developing higher intelligence through lab experiments gone haywire. The biggest asset in this suspension of disbelief was the creation of Caesar himself, played through motion capture performance by the great Andy Serkis, who seemed as real as any human on screen, with nuances in facial expressions and thoughts that rendered him nearly sentient.
In this new sequel to a film that was essentially a high tech B-movie with playful energy infused throughout (which is what made it work in the first place), the biggest difference is the tone. Directed by Matt Reeves, this film takes itself very seriously indeed, and within the setup that all makes sense. Ten years have passed since the first movie, the human population having been ravaged by a virus that took out all but the genetically immune, leaving the intelligent apes to rule themselves deep in the wooded enclave where Caesar had them retreat at the end of Rise. They have built a home there in the forest, and Caesar even has a wife and two sons (although I admit I occasionally had trouble telling his son Blue Eyes from his wife at times- I assume that’s why they make the effort to distinguish her by having her wear a flowery headband). The visual effects, not surprisingly, are amazing this time around, even more so than last time. Caesar’s not the only ape in town now, and some of his pals from the first movie are back (Maurice, Koba) along with many new ones. Many of the new apes with significant roles are also played by motion capture actors, rendering their movements and expressions again, strikingly realistic. But this is where Andy Serkis really does reveal what a talent he is, because Caesar is still the only ape who seems as three-dimensional as any human man (maybe more), and when you see him in close-ups he seems to be thinking and feeling emotions to the point where you can forget he’s not a man. That’s not so with the others, who remain impressive special effects, but not more than that.
The human survivors this time are a group led by Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman, who live in a huddled colony outside the woods and accidentally come in contact with the apes one day. This leads to the conflict, which is fairly routine, to be honest. We know a war is coming and the humans and apes have to battle it out, so we already know where all this is headed. Clarke is the nice human, along with his wife (Keri Russell) and teenage son, while various others are the bad guys who hate the apes, want to take them out, etc. None of them are particularly interesting or developed, although the up and coming Jason Clarke does a nice job with the role, exhibiting an empathetic screen presence when interacting with what’s presumably nothing on the screen beside him. Happily, the plot goes in a slightly different direction, as the twist in this film is that the apes are the ones who start the inevitable war with the humans, because the evil Koba, who was experimented on by lab scientists, hates humans so much that he goes against Caesar’s orders and steals their guns, leading a revolt behind the leader’s back.
This leads to chaos of course, and even though there’s kind of a nice anti-gun message in here somewhere (it may have been unintentional), the beginning of the war that ensues is predictable and ends in what’s really a non-ending, because this movie is functioning as a bridge in what’s a planned trilogy (or perhaps more) where the apes will have to eventually defeat the humans if things are still headed in the original 1968 Planet of the Apes direction. I’m sort of hoping the next one bypasses the war altogether and skips to the part where all the apes can talk (most of them are still signing in this one) and are wearing clothes, walking around, etc., just so we can see how the CGI handles that aspect of it. The more seriously the movies take this concept, the harder it is to accept as a whole, but if we can just skip to where it feels like a whole other universe (and humans are a non-factor) that might be kind of cool to see. As of now, this is a visually spectacular, satisfying bridge entry in the series, and as long as Andy Serkis remains the star, I’m on board to the finish.