Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is director Matt Reeves’ anticipated follow up to 2014’s DAWN FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES and, safe to say, we’re all salivating to see it. In this chapter, Caesar (voiced and performed by Andy Serkis) and the rest of the apes have taken up shelter back in the woods once again. However, they are forced back into a deadly conflict by a cutthroat Colonel (Woody Harrelson) and Caesar succumbs to his darker instincts on his quest to avenge his kind.
At a recent 20th Century Fox footage presentation in Los Angeles, Reeves showed a few clips from the film, in various states of finish. The three clips were indicative of the physical scale and emotional scope of the continuing critically and commercially beloved series.
It all begins with the performances of the motion-captured actors. Reeves said of the process, “We shoot everything on the location with the actors and they are driving those performances. Before it becomes PLANET OF THE APES, it’s kind of ‘Planet of The S&M Guys In These Weirdly Tight Outfits.’”
Caesar is a legend now. Reeves set up the timeline saying, “The movie takes place two years after DAWN. No explaining is ever going to make the humans think the apes can be trusted. Caesar has been trying to find some way to survive and he has kind of become a legend. Somehow the apes have managed to survive. They’ve scavenged weapons and retreated to the woods because they know that area. There’s a legend that Caesar has been leading this fight from somewhere deep within the woods. And [the humans] been looking for him for two years.”
The film pulls inspiration from APOCALYPSE NOW and FULL METAL JACKET. In the first clip, we see the soldiers descend upon the apes’ encampment deep in the forest. A few of the soldiers have phrases written on their helmets a la FULL METAL JACKET – like “Monkey Killer,” “Bedtime for Bonzo,” and “Endangered Species.” The man leading this charge to find Caesar is a ruthless Colonel played by Woody Harrelson, someone Reeves likened to “a Kurtz-ian APOCALYPSE NOW type character with great gravitas and intensity.” Later, Reeves mentioned that Caesar is out to get Harrelson’s character in a very “APOCALYPSE NOW way. He takes this journey – in APOCALYPSE NOW, they go up the river – [moving] out of the woods, across California and up into the snowy Sierra’s.”
Reeves’ goal was to expand the canvas further. He explained, “Obviously this is a war movie. Like in any great war movie, you have the spectacle and the battles. One of the great things about these APE movies is you relate to these apes – you’re connecting to them emotionally. While this movie is ostensibly a giant war film, it’s also a war within Caesar’s heart for his soul. He’s feeling guilty that somehow he wasn’t able to see the darkness that was inside Koba, who attacked the humans in the last film.” The Colonel’s pushing in on the apes leads Caesar into some very dark places and Caesar sets out on a mission for revenge. Reeves further elucidated, “As he goes, his posse – Maurice, the orangutan, Rocket, the chimp and the gorilla, Luca, who is his protective servant – they don’t want him to go. They feel it’s a suicide mission. They won’t let him go by himself. This very unlikely posse of apes sets up the river, toward the Sierra’s to get the Colonel. Caesar, has turned in a dark way. They think they’ve found where the human soldiers are supposed to be.”
There’s a young girl in the mix! Along their journey up the coast, the posse of apes discovers a mute young girl (played by Amiah Miller) at a seemingly abandoned house on the seashore. She’s pale, platinum blonde, angelic and the fact that Caesar didn’t kill her on sight lends hope that he still has a heart. Maurice convinces Caesar to bring her along. Die hard APE fans will probably go ape shit over a detail revealed about her a little later on in the film. Reeves said, “She’s a critical character in the movie. This girl is like a flicker of humanity left there. As the story begins, it’s a revenge story. But as Caesar starts making that journey up the river, he starts finding these other clues that start to fill in a larger picture about the humans – not just about the humans but also about the apes. There’s a big unfolding mystery that unravels.”
Genres blend. Reeves revealed, “The movie starts as a war movie and it becomes kind of a Western and then it unfolds to a grand mystery and then it becomes a real battle of wills between Caesar and the Colonel.”
The filmmakers explore new tones not seen before in the series. Reeves mentioned, “There’s plenty of dark stuff you’d expect from an APES story, but there’s also a tremendous heart in this version of the movie. They meet some new characters. It was a way to bring in a larger world of apes, but also new tones. The movie has heightened everything. It has a tremendous amount of humor that we haven’t had in any of the films yet.” The ape he’s speaking of is “Bad Ape,” played by Steve Zahn, who also did the live motion-capture performance, training with former Cirque Du Soleil performer Terry Notary, who plays Rocket. He’s a scavenger/ hermit ape from the Zoo. He knows how to speak but not sign. Reeves called him, “heartbreaking on a certain level, but he’s also extremely funny. [He’s] a tug to Caesar’s humanity.”
“Bad Ape” was written to a picture Reeves and Mark Bomback found on the internet. Reeves stated, “We found a photo on the internet that looked exactly like that ape and we wrote to that ape. Our voices were that ape for a long time which was a lot less funny. [Zahn] read with me over Skype. There was a very emotional scene where you find out about his backstory, where he and Caesar are talking and he started doing the scene and I started crying over Skype.”
Technology has advanced – and Reeves was ready to push it to the next level. He said, “On DAWN, I noticed that the places they were outside in natural light, the ape models themselves looked more real because the lighting is real. You take that photo-real ape in real environments and it looks real. Since my desire was to see the civilization that the apes have created, I wanted to go shoot that in the rainforest. That had never been done. WETA had to take the equipment and make it more robust. In this one, I knew we could do it, because we did it on DAWN. Now I want to go into the mountains and shoot it on snow. The equipment has gotten stronger and stronger and we are able to capture in almost any environment. The other way in which it’s better is WETA has completely rebuilt the pipeline so the detail on the apes and the ability to express the emotions of the actors, that level of realism is startling. They are leagues above what has ever been in a film before. The work itself is just remarkable.”
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES opens on July 14, 2017.