When you walk into a room with Andy Serkis, director Matt Reeves, and producer Dylan Clark, the sense of excitement they have for their upcoming film War for the Planet of the Apes is palpable. Whereas most blockbuster franchises are primarily renowned for their special effects, the Planet of the Apes saga, which all three filmmakers have collaborated in reinvigorating for the 21st century, is mostly loved for its resonant characters and political subtexts—which is all the more remarkable since 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the first film to have photorealistic CGI characters on location shoots in the wilderness.
So yes, they have plenty to be proud about while going into New York Comic Con where they’ll give fans their first taste of real footage from 2017’s third chapter in the modern Apes franchise later tonight. But sitting down with them this afternoon, more than anything I wanted to know what kind of movie this will be, and how it continues the story of ape leader Caesar’s journey into a full-fledged war.
Repeatedly while talking to all three storytellers, the influence appeared to be less about what came before and more of what Matt Reeves described as a biblical epic for the simian set.
Citing the eponymous conflict in War for the the Planet of the Apes as the key moment in Caesar’s legacy, Reeves says, “He’s being thrust into a war that’s going to turn him into the seminal figure in Ape history, if there is such a thing. We almost think of it like a biblical epic, this story. We knew that going in, but the ‘hows,’ we didn’t know. So we went back and watched all the movies; we watched biblical epics; we watched, and we went, ‘Okay, this is really about how do we carry forth.”
This seems appropriate for Caesar, because, in addition to his name he is also in a franchise that was launched by the movie stardom of Charlton Heston, Mr. Ben-Hur himself. Also, as they now look back at the three recent Ape movies, Andy Serkis quips that the journey of Caesar from young chimpanzee in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes to a seasoned statesman in War makes this franchise their version of a Richard Linklater experiment.
“This is like our Boyhood; this is like getting together over 12 years to make—this is our Apehood!” he says with a small laugh. “For me, [it’s about] the relationships over such a long period of time with actors, but also seeing the characters grow, develop, and change, through different situations, and… from playing Caesar as an infant to a revolutionary through to a mature statesman like character.”
This leads to the interesting question that if Caesar is indeed taking on a biblical stature in War, how will his later years as a statesman be represented? After all, the synopsis has already promised that after Caesar suffers heavy loses that he’ll wrestle with darker instincts.
“There’s an age and a weariness that I was very keen to bring to Caesar in this one,” Serkis says when I pose the question about those darker instincts. “At the beginning, you can see the strain and stress of having been a leader in difficult times that you witness in all statesmen and women. You see it in their eyes, that sense of: they’re battered, they’ve taken lots of hits, and you see the responsibility that they’re carrying.”
Serkis also hints that there will be a brutal battle during the first act of War for the Planet of the Apes that will leave Caesar deeply hurting.
“But then this cataclysmic event happens very early on in our story, which sends him in a direction that he’s just not expecting, that is when it becomes very personal, a very personal tragedy that drives him to a place where he forgets himself and wants revenge, and that becomes his pure driving force. And that is an alien feeling to him, and he struggles to fight and battle that for the entire journey.”
Of course, just as with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the idea of a conflict between humans and apes for dominance over the planet is very reminiscent of the last (and least) of the original Planet of the Apes movies from the 1960s and ‘70s, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). However, the filmmakers again suggest a much grander influence in storytelling, even if the 2017 film shares a faint similarity to the ’73 movie’s title.
“Because it’s a battle?” Reeves laughs when asked if Battle might offer any influences on War. “Here’s the weird thing…. because of people who are true crazed fans of all of the films—I hadn’t seen Battle since literally I was a kid, and I don’t know if Mark [Bomback, co-writer on War] had ever seen it. So one of the things we did in preparation for writing the story for this one was, ‘You know, now that we actually have time’—because we didn’t on Dawn. I came in so late, and we just jumped in. And people were like, ‘Oh, you’re doing Battle, right?’ I was like, ‘Ah, were we doing Battle? I had no idea.’
“We watched Battle, and we were like, ‘They kind of did Battle.’ It was really weird. I mean [it’s] a totally different film, but certain key points were remarkably similar, just plot points. We didn’t do anything at all like that in this one. It’s really like a big grand epic, biblical story. It’s about Caesar and how he becomes this key figure. I don’t think that’s been done in any of the Apes films. This is really a different thing.”
War for the Planet of the Apes gets biblical when it opens on July 14, 2017. We’ll also have more coverage on the Ape epic from NYCC, including our full interview with the filmmakers, later today!