I grew up watching re-runs of the old Charlton Heston version of “Planet of the Apes,” full of rubber faced, horse riding, man-apes that held humans in bondage on a post-apocalyptic Earth. It was the pinnacle of sci-fi movie making magic in the late 60s. It was campy, corny, and I loved it.
I was only about 10 years old by the time the re-runs hit TV, and let’s just say special effects have come a long, long way since then. If you’d have told me I’d be captivated again in 2017 by another movie with talking apes, I’d have laughed. In fact, one of my family members let out a laugh in one of the first scenes, but not a, “ha ha funny” sort of laugh, but more of an “oh my God this looks so real” sort of laugh. That’s the effect this movie will have on you. It just feels so real that you’ll find yourself sucked in and actually rooting for the apes against the humans, because let’s face it, it’s the humans that end up acting like animals, full of fear and malice, without mercy or love.
This movie is the third in a trilogy in which the humans have nearly wiped themselves out with a virus that somehow made large primates as smart as humans and they’ve learned to communicate, mostly by sign language. So not only are there talking apes, but there are subtitles, and yet still it works because the story and characters are so engrossing.
The main character is Caesar, the leader of the surviving band of apes, who despite attempts at peace, has found himself and his followers hunted by a relentless colonel who sees them as a threat. Caesar’s burden is to keep the apes from extinction, but he wants to do so without giving up his, well…. his humanity. The real war, it turns out, is the one for his soul, and the driving question is what makes a race superior? Is it intelligence and genetic make-up? Or is it mercy and love?
Caesar is an advocate of peace and mercy until the colonel begins murdering those close to him and enslaving the remaining apes. He almost loses himself to hate were it not for his best friend, Maurice, who keeps reminding Caesar hate is not the answer, at one point even saving a young human girl, against Caesar’s wishes, as they go on a quest to kill the colonel. Computer generated creatures tend to look phony in movies, but the emotions conveyed by facial expressions, body language, and especially the eyes of Caesar and the other apes is simply astounding, and as their gun-toting quest on horseback takes them across the frozen tundra, it is as entertaining as any western.
In fact, the movie is so rich it also works as a survival story, a prison movie and a great escape as well, but I’ll leave the rest for you to discover. It even finally answers some of the burning questions from the original film. namely, “How did the apes end up in charge?” and “How do the humans lose the power of speech?” I give it two hearty thumbs up. So does my mom, who saw the original when it opened in 1968, and she loved this prequel just as much as I did. In an age where Hollywood continues to re-hash old storylines, this attempt got it right.