2014; directed by Matt Reeves; adapted by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver; 124 mins
An ape on horseback brandishing a machine gun has got to be one of the most striking images ever projected onto a cinema screen. In 1968, Franklin J. Schaffner presented us with a crash-zoom of said image and 46 years later, the effect remains undiminished. This, in part, is as much down to Matt Reeves‘ fastidiously intelligent approach to making us understand the anger of the apes as it is the seamless motion-capture performances by Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell, [et al] exuding a real sense of physical threat. Is this the best of all the apes films? I think it has a very strong case to put forward because, whilst not without it’s flaws, it is the film that puts the most in and gives the most back.
With War for the Planet of the Apes just around the corner, I thought it was high time to revisit what was, for me, the surprise treat of 2014. Having only seen Tim Burton’s 2001 shocker prior to this, I did not go in with high hopes. In 2011, I had passed up the chance to see Rupert Wyatt’s reboot in favour of Cowboys and Aliens only to end up having that movie be the first and – to date – only movie I have ever walked out on. But my friend Richard made me go and see it; “We’re not gonna go and see any of your fucking reading films” – we were gonna go and see a normal movie! Aw, alright!
Of course, as the subtitles accompanied the apes’ sign language, all I hear is a voice next to me, going; “Ah, fuck!”
Ten winters on from the events of Rise, Caesar and his comrades including Koba, Maurice and Rocket are still establishing their new world order but one day, Caesar’s son Blue Eyes, along with another ape, stumble upon a group of humans. The apes were so certain that there were no humans left and in the ensuing confrontation, Blue Eyes’ companion gets shot. This angers the apes but Caesar calls for calm and the humans are allowed to escape back to their colony. From then on, the apes are on edge, with Caesar wanting to avoid conflict but to keep the humans in their place, whilst others (Koba, in particular) want to wipe their former oppressors off the face of the Earth.
The humans continue to make dumb mistakes which jeopardise their relationship with the apes, however, Caesar and a few others see that whilst there are aggressive elements, other humans, such as colony co-leader, Malcolm and his surrogate family, Ellie and Alexander are desperate to live at peace with them. What Caesar doesn’t see, however, is the growing dissent among those closest to him…
In the original series, it wasn’t really until Escape that the apes became the main characters but right from the start of this rebooted franchise, there has been no mistaking that this is Caesar’s story. The human characters change per film but the chimps, orangutans, gorillas and monkeys all remain constant. If anything, the roles of dumb animals and masters are reversed.
That last sentiment is really only the start of what makes this film franchise such a treat. Going into this film for the first time, I had just finished reading Jon Lee Anderson’s breeze-block-sized biography of Che Guevara (A Revolutionary Life) and a whole raft of other books on the subject of revolution*. It really struck me how cleverly this film discusses the notions of dissent and insurrection, comradeship and totalitarianism. Certainly, through the mutilated, embittered character of Koba (one of Stalin‘s early nicknames), you can see how the humans’ treatment of him in their laboratories leads to his eventual all-encompassing rage which tips over into violent fascism.
The fact that a blockbuster movie can talk about these issues, to me, suggests that (fingers crossed) this may be the Bourne trilogy for this decade. It also shows that the story goes way beyond it’s simplistic satirical logline – sophisticated apes oppressing animalistic humans – to delve right in to deeper subjects that comment on our weaknesses and fears as the upright, civilised primates. In doing so, it also continues to uphold the argument that genre can talk about the world around us in ways that are so much smarter and more interesting than any worthy biopic or historical tract. In the end, DOTPOTA is still an action sci-fi movie about talking monkeys.
The criticism that the female characters are too insubstantial is correct, I think and as the years and the feminist arguments have gone on, it’s become even more glaring. Mostly so in the case of Caesar’s wife Cornelia who is in about three scenes and only really there to be a symbol of what a man’s gotta do rather than being a sentient character in her own right. It would’ve been interesting to see what sway she held over the newly established community, even her weakened, postnatal state.
Where the film really shows it’s cinematic muscles, though, is in the mo-cap apes. Not just the fact that you see every wrinkle and hair on their massive frames but that you feel the physical threat from them upon the humans. Moreover, the decision to have the apes signing is a genius touch to keep us aware that the apes are not at full capability just yet. They are still evolving and adapting as a society; so, whilst they may have heft and agility as individuals, their community is still going through puberty (for want of a better word) but they have a dangerous concoction of animal instincts and human wit. Through this, you get a smartly table-turning scene in which Koba, acting like a dumb chimp, fools two ignorant humans into letting their guard down, murdering them and taking guns back to the commune to set in motion his rebellion.
The human characters are fairly standard but it’s not their story. They are conduits to the ongoing evolution of the apes’ dominance over the planet and their own condition.
*Check out Guevara’s own writings, particularly Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia for some fascinating first-hand descriptions of life on the front lines of a revolution.