Warning: this article contains major spoilers for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you’ve seen 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, either at the movies, on Blu-ray or on cable TV, because we are going to discuss the ending of that film and where it might lead in future Apes movies. Stop here and come back another time if you have not seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which by the way is excellent and perhaps the finest in the franchise since the 1968 original.
Still with us? Okay.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ends with the fragile peace established between the ape community led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the colony of human survivors led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) utterly shattered. The ape village established in the forests outside San Francisco has been burned down, while the fortified tower in which the human had found shelter is irreparably damaged, if not completely destroyed, by explosives set off by a self-sacrificing Dreyfus. Other key members of both sides are dead, and both humans and apes find themselves scattered, panicked and on the defensive.
As the film reaches its climax, it is revealed that Dreyfus made contact with a military unit of some kind and that they are on their way to San Francisco, ostensibly to wipe out the apes. The movie ends as it began, with a close-up of Caesar’s eyes, only instead of the confident and courageous glare the movie opens with, his eyes are now tired and fearful, yet still suffused with a steely glint of determination as he resigns himself to all-out war with whatever is left of humanity.
There will, of course, be a sequel: it already has a July 14, 2017 release date and a title: War of the Planet of the Apes. Both Serkis and director Matt Reeves are contracted to return. In interviews for Dawn, Reeves dropped some very generalized hints about what he wanted to do with the third movie. But what is that exactly and how will he get there? And what is the long-range future for the Apes series?
The original five films created a future history of the Earth that was, depending on one’s point of view, either a closed, fatalistic loop or an open-ended timeline that altered itself as the series went on and branched off into a whole new reality. In those films, the 20th century astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) travels to a future Earth where apes ascended after humankind decimated itself. The Earth is destroyed in the year 3955 with Taylor himself pulling the trigger. But that brings about the arrival of apes from that future in our time, and the offspring of two of them — the franchise’s first Caesar — leads the revolution that sows the seeds of the simian civilization that eventually dominates what is left of the world and is the one Taylor encounters.
The final shot (echoed by the closing image of Dawn) in the last of the original five movies, 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, ends that series on an ambiguous note: a single tear runs down the face of a statue of Caesar that stands amidst a group of ape and human children listening together to an orangutan Lawgiver. Is Caesar crying because he knows this idyll will not last? Or is the tear one of joy because somehow — thanks in part to his own kindness — the doom that awaits the Earth has been avoided and both races will now live in peace?
That debate has raged for years and continues to do so, but the rebooting of the Apes franchise has added even more speculation to what’s already out there. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are very loose remakes of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes that, despite vast differences with those two films, still manage to follow their bare-bones narrative structure. Conquest and Rise detail an ape revolution led by a single intelligent simian (named Caesar in both) and the beginnings of the fall of man; Battle and Dawn find ape and human survivors trying to co-exist, but betrayed and undermined by forces within and without, leaving the future uncertain. Does this mean that, if the rebooted Apes series continues, we will eventually get to a remake of Planet of the Apes?
Matt Reeves seems to think so, telling Den Of Geek last year, “In everything we’ve talked about — and of course it all evolves — the idea is that Rise sort of proposes a beginning of how things happened. And the ultimate end of that story is Planet of the Apes.” But Reeves added, “It’s all about how do we get there and what are the stories worth telling about getting there…There’s a lot to do on the way there that’s worth exploring.” (One of the Easter eggs in Rise of the Planet of the Apes mentions that Taylor’s ship, the Icarus, has set off on what is supposed to be its interstellar voyage.)
In fact, there’s nearly 2,000 years of stories to tell if you follow the first timeline and stick with the idea that Taylor crashes back to Earth in 3955. But that history — altered by Conquest — also originally suggested that humankind fell in the 25th century. Assuming that has all been moved up, we won’t have to wait 2,000 years to get to the future envisioned in Planet of the Apes, where apes live in a simple, mostly agrarian society and humans are mute savages existing in the wild.
So what will we see in War of the Planet of the Apes? Let’s assume that Reeves jumps ahead another 10 years or so, as he did between Rise and Dawn. I can imagine a scenario where Caesar has led his tribe through a series of battles with human military factions and emerged, if not triumphant, at least still alive and still a united front. Perhaps his group meets up with other apes and integrates them into their society, expanding their numbers as they move eastward across the former continental United States. Perhaps the third film chronicles the apes’ journey, while around them, different human factions begin to fight each other for control of what is left of America until a final confrontation on several fronts is unavoidable.
One of those factions might come into possession of nuclear weapons and initiate a nuclear exchange with the others. That scenario could find Caesar and his people avoiding their own extinction by essentially getting out of the way as humankind tears itself apart — a theme suggested in the original Apes movies. That last human war could render a large chunk of America (we’ll leave the rest of the world out of it for now) uninhabitable, leading to the remaining humans either descending into savagery and/or mutation (everybody loves the mutants in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, so it would be kind of awesome to see a variation of them somewhere down the line in the rebooted series).
So while Dawn was about Caesar and his people doing their best to protect their home but losing it anyway, War could be about the battle and/or journey to find a new one. Caesar’s personal arc could be one of compassion vs. cold-blooded survival. Does he try to help even a few human stragglers survive the end of their species, or does he shrug them off for good and establish an ape kingdom where there is no room for humans whatsoever? Does he bury the history of humankind in a new version of the Sacred Scrolls and erase it from memory for all but a few? Does he even have the right to make that decision? Reeves told Collider last year that the next movie would be about Caesar becoming “the ape Moses,” which makes the idea of him leading his people to safety more plausible.
The answers to those questions will hopefully make War of the Planet of the Apes as epic and profound as Rise and Dawn have been so far, and may be just ambiguous enough for the new timeline to go in either direction. The planet of the apes that Taylor finds when he gets off his spaceship centuries from now could be a very different one from the world that Charlton Heston blows up — and maybe he won’t even end up pressing that red button at all.