In Rupert Wyatt’s unexpectedly impressive Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) developed high intelligence and led his simian brothers to freedom, while the virus that altered his brain threatened to wipe out the Earth’s human population. Here, director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) shows what’s happened in the aftermath of those events. And he has clearly decided that to tell the next chapter in the story, he’s going to need to go bigger. A lot bigger. Everything, from the sheer numbers of the apes to the weighty moral issues to the spectacular action set pieces, is epic in scope and over-awing in scale.
Caesar is now the leader of a large ape colony outside San Francisco. He’s a father (to a mature son, Blue Eyes, and a newborn baby) and is teaching his companions to live a peaceful and productive existence: “Ape Not Kill Ape” is, of course, the first rule. So far, so idyllic. But here come some pesky humans to spoil things. There are a few survivors of what was dubbed “simian flu”, and they want access to a dam in the ape territory that could provide them with power and a chance to rebuild their society. Caesar is torn between his desire to protect his ape family, and his sense of compassion towards the beleaguered humans – led by Jason Clarke and Keri Russell, who certainly don’t seem all that evil.
Caesar attempts to please everyone, but his loyal right-hand ape Koba (Toby Kebbell), who suffered more than most at the hands of humans, determines to show him the error of mixing with mankind. What follows is an epic, Shakespearean tale of betrayal, deception and brutality. Returning screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (along with Mark Bomback) are unafraid to examine big ethical questions, and this plays out like a Greek tragedy – with a touch of Orwell’s Animal Farm thrown in.
Humans and apes are both heroes and villains here. The plot goes beyond the binary of “apes good, humans bad”, with the logic and motivation behind every action, however horrific, completely understandable. The power struggle between Caesar and Koba is compelling, as are the shifting loyalties of many of their brothers. The ape characterisation is incredible – the acting of Serkis et al, coupled with the magic of the visual effects, creates distinct and utterly believable individuals. There’s no sense that what you’re seeing is constructed on a computer – while you’re watching the film, those apes are 100% real. And on the occasions where they speak, the dialogue is a shining example of how you can say a lot with just a couple of well-chosen words. In contrast, though, the human characters are underdeveloped and simplistic. Gary Oldman, as the trigger-happy leader of the humans, is woefully underused, while Clarke and Russell radiate niceness, if not much else.
This manages to be both uplifting and downbeat, often at the same time. It’s cleverly plotted, ingeniously fitting in to the sequence of events that leads to the original movies. And while the visceral impact of its formidable action scenes is undeniable, there’s also as much dramatic tension rung out from a sideways glance between two apes. This is a storming, soulful blockbuster that’s got both brains and heart.