Ten years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the massive army of angry, enlightened and collaborative apes have taken over much of the United States, with few humans visibly around to threaten them. The once adorable Caesar (Andy Serkis, whose eyes burn through a mask of CGI pixels) is now the magnetic leader of the apes, keeping a close watch on his kingdom and maintaining peace and order. The arrival of humans, seeking the help of the apes, touches Caesar’s buried feelings of compassion towards his former captors. His cunning second in command, Koba, lacks compassion for humans and aims to eliminate the remaining humans on Earth.
As it was in the previous Planet of the Apes prequel, the special effects work is so staggering, there were only a few, tiny moments where I took notice of the CGI. You’ll believe you’re watching “real” apes, acting alongside their human co-stars. This is an amazing achievement in using special effects as a storytelling tool. But while always compelling, this is also an overlong, depressing film with humans that are never as interesting as the talking apes.
Director Matt Reeves made a big splash with his canny, found footage monster movie Cloverfield, then lost his footing with a useless remake of the perfect Let the Right One In. Here, the forcefulness of the filmmaking matches the confidence in the storytelling, reminding me of James Cameron. This is a huge, risk-taking film that incorporates superbly manipulated CGI with an unapologetically grim story.
Here’s my problem: I admired the film but in no way enjoyed a story devoid of “fun.” This is humorless, grim and quite violent at times, with a story that progresses in ways that are inevitably bleak. Fans of the original films and Rise (a smaller but more emotionally engaging film that I prefer to this one) will note the ways this is smartly aligned with the establishing franchise. I was also pleased by how the story addresses racism (as a sci-fi allegory, of course), as we see bigotry between humans and apes, the harm it causes and how an understanding is essential for survival.
As the leaders of the human race, Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman are well cast and evoke the sadness that comes with a decade of hopelessness. Unlike the foolish efforts of the cast of the latest Transformers debacle, these actors skillfully underplay, finding the dour truths in their roles and never try to upstage or out-act their amazing, CGI-enhanced co-stars. Even with a great ensemble (and a nod to James Franco’s good turn in the prior installment), the ape characters rule the movie as much as they do the planet.
The actors playing the apes, including Serkis, Judy Greer and dozens of others, spent filming in motion capture suits. This means (as fans of visual effects artistry know) that the real actors performed opposite the “apes,” an odd sight of humans attired in tights, covered with spots and a camera rig, in order to digitally transfer their performance onto the CGI apes inserted later. The final synergy of the CGI apes and the actors embodying them is startling.
Serkis’ commanding turn is noteworthy, but so is the work of Toby Kebbell as Koba; this is an exceptionally scary villain. The scene where Koba exploits his appearance, performing as a stereotypical zoo creature in order to deceive a couple of gun toting humans, is truly chilling. Parents take note: the PG-13 isn’t a joke. Not since Greystoke has a film about apes been so vividly brutal and cruel.
Reeves opens and closes his film with a close-up of Caesar’s eyes. It’s appropriate. He’s watching us and, likewise, we can’t take our eyes off of him, or the rest of those damn dirty apes.