Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 10 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (0-5): 4.5
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.
Director Matt Reeves achieves what few filmmakers do—he makes a sequel better than its predecessor! Much as I liked 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the new film delves into themes of trust, group conflict, and peacemaking better than either Rise or the many Planet of the Apes films that came out in the last century. The special effects and sets—transforming actors believably into apes and San Francisco’s ruined cityscape—set this film apart, but even more special is the literate script by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback. For pure escapism, the slightly more than two hours spent immersed in the story will fly by, turning your mind away from your own troubles and concerns. And yet, the story is so insightful that it will turn your refreshed mind to reflect upon the need for trust amidst the all too similar conflicts going on today—locally and around the world.
This film begins about ten years after Rise ended, with an opening montage of world news reports of global catastrophe: a virus (called “Simian flu”) that escaped the laboratory in the earlier film has killed off most of the world’s human population. The genetically enhanced apes that escaped at the climax of Rise have been living in the Muir Woods north of San Francisco. They have built a crude yet large settlement, learned to use fire and weapons, and a few of them, horses. The ape that was raised and taught to speak by Will Rodman in the earlier film, Caesar (Andy Serkis), is the head of the 2000 or so apes. They are quite a diverse group, consisting of orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, and others.
A real culture is in its infant stage now that Caesar apparently has taught others to speak a rudimentary language. This consists of a combination of human words, signs, and facial expressions, translated in the film nicely for us by subtitles. A code of morals is also in existence: we see printed out, as well as announced several times, “Ape do not kill apes.” The tribe lives on what they can hunt, such as a herd of elk, and quickly come together if a predator, such as a giant bear in one exciting scene, should threaten them.
Caesar has a family, a pregnant wife and an adolescent son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), the latter feeling badly about himself due to some failures. The other apes that we will get to know well are Koba (Tony Kebbell), a good friend who was treated very badly in a human laboratory, and Maurice (Karin Konoval), a large orangutan who seems to be the tribe’s wise man and teacher of the young. Thus far the apes have had no contact with humans, for which Caesar is relieved.
Down in what remains of San Francisco humans lead a subsistence life under the guidance of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) who was once in the military. Like many humans, he blames the apes for the plague that wiped out most of humanity, even though it was a human lab that was experimenting on the apes at the time. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a widower with a teenaged son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), was once an architect. He has worked with Dreyfus to develop a plan to trek up into the mountains to re-activate a hydro dam, thus bringing electricity back to the city. Malcolm, his nurse girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell), insecure son (an interesting parallel to that of Caesar and Blue Eyes), along with Carver (Kirk Acevedo) and a few others, set out into the hills to locate the dam. The apes discover and surround them, many of the latter wanting to fight. Fortunately they listen to Caesar, who wants to avoid violence if possible. Malcolm pleads that they be allowed to proceed to the dam, and, to the consternation of Koba, Caesar agrees, provided the humans turn over their weapons. It is a great scene in which an ape smash one of the guns to pieces. The humans do manage to repair the hydro equipment at the dam, and down in San Francisco, the lights come on again amidst joyful acclaim.
It is much easier to light up a city than it is to enlighten the mind, whether of humans or genetically enhanced apes. Caesar wonders if he can trust Malcolm. Koba is certain that he cannot. Caesar and his followers want peace, and want to trust the humans despite misgivings. Koba vividly remembers his treatment by humans in their cruel laboratories, and so is certain that the humans can never be trusted. On the human side, Malcolm also wants to trust Caesar, whereas Carver is like the old Westerners in regard to Native Americans—“The only good Indian (ape) is a dead Indian (ape).” For a while a fragile peace holds, until…Guess which two of the above four manage to scuttle the uneasy truce?
As we saw during the Cold War, trust is vital to getting along with a perceived enemy. President Reagan made his famous statement, “Trust, but verify,” and no doubt the Soviets felt the same way about us. It takes time and much effort to build a trust that can lead to reconciliation, and but a moment to destroy that trust, as we see in the film. The movie also shows that we can learn from calamity and grow in maturity. When Koba follows the path of hatred against humans, Caesar tells Malcolm, “I always think ape is better than human, I see now how like them we are.” And so they are. It is something we would do well to remember when judging our own enemies, whether personal or national.
Discussion questions with this review will be available in the August Visual Parables journal. The journal also includes many extras–book reviews, the use of films for church seasons, a lectionary related column, and more. Check it out at The Store.