Throughout the first day of New York Comic Con, we heard several things about 2017’s hotly anticipated War for the Planet of the Apes: it is taking inspiration from the biblical epics of yore; it will make the struggle between Woody Harrelson’s human colonel and Andy Serkis’ regal, apish Caesar a spiritual successor to The Bridge on the River Kwai; it’s in the snow!
Well, after feasting my eyes upon eight minutes of fascinating footage from the motion-captured event film, I can safely say that it seems most acutely like a return to the visual iconography of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes movie by way of Col. Kurtz’s nightmares. And I mean that as the highest conflict.
As was glimpsed in the first full War for the Planet of the Apes trailer, Woody Harrelson’s mysterious “Colonel” (no last names are necessary in the End Times) is more than a tad bit influenced by both Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall’s characters from Apocalypse Now. However, that wasn’t even the most impressive part at tonight’s New York Comic Con Panel for the simian threequel. Believe it or not, what most stunned a crowd filled with impassioned fans was a pure, uninterrupted scene of drastically early, in-progress CGI that barely surrounded Andy Serkis and a little girl whom he meets in a cabin in the woods. That’s by a beach. Where if the waves crashing on the nearby shore hit any louder, you’d swear that they were breaking on the agony of Chuck Heston’s shattered dreams.
To take a step back for a moment, the sequence shown was so early in the cradle of its post-production process that Serkis told the audience this sort of preemptive peeling back of the curtain had never been done before by a major studio film. Director Matt Reeves, meanwhile, compared the experience of showing this material to the audience as like being stripped down and forced to stand nude before a crowd. I suspect he was only half joking.
Luckily, the scene itself was so impressive that despite the often barely-there special effects (which we’ll get to in a moment), it was nevertheless a hypnotically engaging and instantly gripping bit of quiet character work. Continuing the somber and often intimate tone elicited from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the scene is primarily about several apes, led by Serkis’ Caesar and Karin Konoval’s infinitely empathetic Maurice. When last we saw them in the previous film, Serkis’ fatherly chimp and Konoval’s intellectual orangutan were the two most peaceful and diplomatic of apes. However, something has changed for the worse inside of Caesar between films.
As Reeves explained before the clip, an event happens early in the film—as Caesar’s ape civilization continues to lose soldiers and worse to invading human armies—that causes Caesar’s heart to harden. Serkis describes the effect as if Caesar’s empathy is “draining away.” Now, in the clip, Maurice and a random assortment of apes stumble upon several rustic shacks by the sea. Caesar has not yet appeared when a man—foraging for firewood—materializes before the apes. While scared, he claims to be unarmed. And yet, he sure enough pulls a gun out from underneath the logs in his hands, but he is promptly gunned down by Caesar who enters the scene from the doorway one of the houses, appearing in one of the most fully rendered shots. Reeves describes this as Serkis’ Clint Eastwood moment.
This sequence is filmed on what is presumably the western coastline, however once Caesar leads the gang of apes into one of the houses, the strings further show as there are few animated effects left, and Serkis, Konoval, and the rest of the team are seen in their simple motion-capture suits displaying tremendous performances. Indeed, Maurice’s character comes out just as strongly as Caesar’s when all of them discover someone in the barracks—but it isn’t a soldier.
Inside a bunk, they find a scared little human girl clinging to her mattress. Serkis’ face displays complete shock and anger, hinting that Caesar even briefly considers killing the child. Maurice literally stays his leader’s equivocating hand. Caesar then leaves her be and has his followers scour the shack for supplies. However, Maurice remains behind and attempts to offer the young girl a doll, trying to both console and communicate with the child… but when she tries to speak no words come out.
Deeply concerned, Maurice attempts to explain to Caesar via sign language outside that he fears if they leave this young girl, she will die. And Caesar, speaking in English, all but says then so be it. Maurice thus defiantly puts the child on his back and climbs into the saddle of his horse. In the final moments of the scene, Caesar is begrudgingly staring at the doe-eyed girl, who moments ago was standing over her father’s dead body (whom Caesar killed). She now clings to Maurice’s back as they ride their horses down the coastline.
It is a sweet but chilling scene if you know the original Planet of the Apes. Tonight’s final shot of the scene also matches a more dramatic clip we gleaned in the sizzle reel of a group of apes charging down the beach in a gallant wide shot that is straight out of iconography of Charlton Heston and Linda Harrison doing the same.
Also like Ms. Harrison’s Nova from that original film, this young girl attempts to speak but no words have come out. On a purely speculative note, I’d venture to guess that this film might chronicle the beginning of the domestication of humans as pets with Maurice taking the child in—and realizing the best victory is to breed humans to be more docile and subservient. Again, however, this is a guess.
But as to how the scene was accomplished? It was a complete trick of wizardry that Matt Reeves, producer Dylan Clark, and Andy Serkis explained to me in an interview earlier in the day:
Says Reeves, “You’re going to see a sequence from the film, which is still in process, still being edited, and some shots are Andy, as you see him right now, except wearing dots on his face and in his mo-cap outfit. And then other shots are animation shots, so you’re not even seeing what it looks like in the final film; you’re seeing rough, crude animation. And also, you’ll see a glimpse of early lighting renders where it looks like a Caesar or the Maurice, and the apes that you know.”
It should also be noted that even the early light renders are far from done. Occasional shots, like a close-up of Maurice when first connecting with the young girl, as well as the introductory shot of Caesar after he shoots her father from earlier in the film, look like the characters, but the special effects are still essentially templates to give an idea of how the finished animation will appear as with accurate lighting rendered in. Other animation looks entirely artificial, yet the acting is nonetheless authentic, just like the emotion on Serkis’ dotted face.
For techie fans, Reeves said the scene is so fresh out of the editing suite that it was a QuickTime video straight from the Avid software. One even wonders if the panel’s location being so far away from the Javits Center indicates how down-to-the-wire preparing this footage was.
Of course, it was not the only footage. The first full trailer, which will be released online soon, features two soldiers with green laser-lit headgear entering a cave behind the top of a waterfall. One of them distinctly has the voice of Woody Harrelson while the other might as well wear a red shirt as he enters the cave. We see only his greenlight as he corresponds with Harrelson over the radio. Then as we hear the sounds of him getting ape-slammed, his gun fires and we glimpse Caesar’s silhouette in sporadic flashes as he kills the man. “Is it dead?!” Harrelson keeps shouting over the radio.
Soon enough, Caesar emerges and makes eye contact with Harrelson, who then jumps off the waterfall on a bungee cord to escape the chimp. A fast-moving sizzle reel confirms again that much of this will be set in the snow as we see the human barracks held by a commanding Harrelson who speaks with the glee of a napalming Robert Duvall and the madness of Marlon Brando. This is humanity’s last defense, and he will not let this become a planet of apes. The final shot is of Caesar apparently captured by the humans while Harrelson holds a gun to his head.
To give some context to this, producer Dylan Clark confirmed that the movie is very much about the intense rivalry between Caesar and the Colonel, stating, “There’s an almost shared appreciation” between the two leaders. He compares the dynamic as that between Alec Guinness’ English POW in Bridge on the River Kwai, Lt. Col. Nicholson, and Sessue Hayakawa as his Japanese warden, Col. Saito. All of this leads me to personally wonder (again this is purely speculation) if the last two-thirds of the film that becomes a battle of their wills might not largely include Caesar as a POW?
Additionally, Reeves gives context that this is set two years into a grueling war between apes and humans for the planet, and that Caesar’s steeliness comes in part from his regret for not foreseeing Koba’s hatred for the humans spiraling into a bigoted violence. It’s also a violent thirst that Serkis reveals Caesar now shares with his dead frenemy as the war drags on.
Reeves also talked to me in our earlier interview about this dynamic, saying, “We felt that Caesar would be haunted by what he did to Koba. In a way that’s almost as central at the beginning of this story as anything, because it wasn’t just that he had to kill his brother, which is painful, but it’s also he had a blind spot. He couldn’t empathize enough with Koba to understand that when pressed in that situation he would never be able to co-exist with the humans. So in a way, Caesar feels the burden of the war as if it’s partly his fault.”
And now with Harrelson’s Colonel, he has found another antagonist with a perspective that is all too relatable. Frankly, the results look downright apocalyptic.
War for the Planet of the Apes opens on July 14, 2017.