In case there was any worry, let me assuage your fears now – so far, Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes looks to be the lush, ballsy epic that fans of the franchise have been waiting for. Kicking off New York Comic-Con in style, director Matt Reeves, producer Dylan Clark and star Andy Serkis (who arrived on stage to rousing applause), dropped by to give a select few attendees an advance look at the upcoming third installment. The franchise, which functions as a prequel to the original Planet of the Apes films, details the events that led to ape world domination and tracks the central life of Caesar, a genetically souped-up ape whose human upbringing imbues him with rare understanding for both humanity and his own kind. When we last left Caesar, he warned us of impending war following the death of his brother Koba and the escalation of the fight between humans and his species.
War for the Planet of the Apes will pick up with Caesar two years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, right in the middle of the titular war, at the moment in which his empathy, a long driver of emotional tension in the franchise, has been lost. What will follow is what Reeves calls a “mythic journey” as he comes to understand the way that Koba felt about humans, as the war around him slowly escalates into incredible violence. Clark also mentioned that the “war” in the title is also “inside Caesar himself,” regarding what he might have been able to do to stop the war, and the incredible guilt he harbors over killing his own brother. Andy Serkis confirmed that the film is the most psychologically intense of Caesar’s arcs so far.
Lest you presume a lack of commitment on the part of the Apes team, Matt began working on the third feature during the second film, and he and Serkis reportedly only took about 4 weeks off after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, before work began. They shot in very harsh conditions, particularly filming a lot on location and in snow, a first for the mocap technology they’re using. Reeves and Serkis confirmed that the scope of the next film will be much larger than anything they’ve done before, with a whole troop of new characters of apes. In addition to the new apes, Woody Harrelson joins the cast as the film’s central big bad: the Colonel, whose escalating and diabolical acts of violence cause Caesar to embark on a manhunt to find him and attempt to end the violence. But before he leaves on his journey, which he fully accepts as a possible suicide mission, Maurice (Karin Konoval), Luca (Scott Lang) and Rocket (Terry Notary) join him, unwilling to let him go alone.
To help us get a look at the action, Reeves introduced the first section of never-before-seen footage with a bit of anxiety. “This is like stripping down naked in front of you,” he admitted, as the trio revealed a seven-minute clip that included both finished digital effects, raw mocap footage and early photo pass, alternately revealing Serkis and Co. in polished ape effects, unfinished early effects, and the actors themselves onscreen.
In the scene, Luca, Maurice, Rocket and Caesar ride on horseback towards a rather idyllic looking seaside shack, clearly war-weary and heavily armed. At first desolate, a lone man carrying a bundle of sticks wanders into frame. “I’m just… gonna… put… this down,” he utters, but before we can even blink, he’s pulled a gun and Caesar, just out of frame, has gunned him down, to the shock of the other apes. The team examines the body, and find a tattoo on his neck that reads “AQ,” signing to each other their assumptions that he must be a deserter of the human army. While a spare drum beat thrums on the soundtrack, the apes enter the shack, traipsing through overturned shelves and crushed jars of preserved food. They bust into the back room of the shack, guns at the ready, but find instead a small, childlike body in a sleeping bag, shying away from the apes and their firearms.
At first taken aback, they eventually put down their guns, and Caesar commands, “Look around, take what you can.” But Maurice hangs back, curious about the little one. She stares at the figure, a young girl, her, and though she’s initially frightened, she drops her defenses once Maurice tenderly offers her a small, canvas doll. But when she opens her mouth to speak, it seems she can produce little beyond strangled stutters, which Maurice mimics with her soft Orangutan hoots. As the other apes prepare to leave, Maurice alerts them that the little girl can’t speak. Caesar, unimpressed by this display of humanity, commands the crew to go. Maurice balks as the little girl follows them out of the shack and back outside. “She’ll die out here alone,” Maurice signs. “We cannot take her,” replies Caesar. “I understand,” Maurice replies, “but I cannot leave her.” We cut to a gorgeous, sunset-drenched beach as the apes travel onwards on horseback, as we see the young girl clinging to Maurice on the back of her horse. Caesar is visibly irritated, but it’s clear their journey must continue.
“That was awful,” Reeves joked when he, Clark and Serkis returned to the stage, who later revealed that the initial scene he had planned to show contained a spoiler “so huge” that he couldn’t let the audience see it. But it’s clear Reeves didn’t care too much about spoilers, as he continued to fill us in on the finer details of the upcoming film, promising that War for the Planet of the Apes will be a very real “war film,” with a “ton of action” on a “huge scale,” that none of the films of the franchise have yet reached. But War won’t be without smaller, emotional touches too. The scene that we were privy to felt incredibly small-scale and intimate compared to the picture of the grand war film that is being described, and Reeves promised that the film will be incredibly focused on the apes themselves, with the story unfolding entirely from Caesar’s point of view. There will also be more humor than ever before, some stemming from the introduction of the young girl to Caesar’s clan. Caesar, who has slowly gained speech over the course of the series, will speak more than ever before as well (a detail we see already in the brief footage I mentioned above), while the other apes’ language continues to develop.
There was great curiosity among the audience as to the role of Harrelson’s Colonel, a “brutal” and “extreme” leader of the human army whose conflict with Caesar facilitates the central conflict of the film, and according to Reeves, “is the whole last two-thirds of the movie.” Apparently, Harrelson and Serkis connected intensely on set, and the pair’s chemistry helped drive their complex conflict. The colonel, though a “mythic war figure,” also has a “shared appreciation” with Caesar, as the pair are drawn to each other via what Serkis calls a “bizarre connection,” despite their fight to the death.
Because of the two-year time jump, we won’t just have a new villain, but a surprisingly different Caesar, who Serkis describes as having reached a “maximum level of internal struggle which is really dark,” spurring a “dark and obsessive desire for revenge” after the death of his brother and the escalating tolls the war takes on his community of apes. Reeves calls the Caesar we see in War for the Planet of the Apes a “bad-ass, Clint Eastwood Caesar.” But the film references didn’t stop there, as Clark described the relationship between Caesar and the Colonel as similar to the one seen in Bridge on the River Kwai, and Reeves said that because he saw the film as “a biblical epic,” the creative team watched everything from Apocalypse Now to Ben-Hur and The 10 Commandments to draw inspiration.
The crew closed out the panel with the first official teaser trailer for the film, which paints a pretty nice picture of the stark war film we’ll be in for come next July. Looking out from inside of a rock structure canvassed by water, we hear a spare, human radio transmission pick up over the soundtrack. A crew of human soldiers traverse a darkly lit cave with guns and laser sights. All is quiet before Caesar attacks the leader of the crew, causing the gun to spew bullets and the cave to fall silent. Caesar lifts the walkie to his head: someone is looking for him. From there, we cut to Harrelson’s Colonel in full war paint regalia, as he propels out of the rock structure and into the water falling just outside, Caesar jumping after him, unafraid of the bullets the Colonel is wielding against him. What follows is traditional teaser-style sizzle, in which we see gorgeous shots of the apes’ forest stronghold and the Colonel’s snowy fortress while Harrelson solemnly delivers his threat. “The irony is we created you,” he begins, explaining that they’ve been paying for their hubris ever since. He promises that he and his army are ready to stand, or else the world will surely become “a planet of apes.” Finally, Caesar and the Colonel are face-to-face, as the Colonel pushes the barrel of his gun right to Caesar’s forehead. Instead of cowering, Caesar pushes right back against the gun, baring his teeth at the Colonel, all but daring him to pull the trigger.
It’s clear Reeves, Serkis and the War for the Planet of the Apes team are off to a great start, and after seeing what the team has to offer even a year away from the film’s release, I’m more than a little excited to see how this next installment will play out. We’ll have to wait a little while though, as War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t slated to hit theaters until July 14, 2017.