Humans get sick, apes get smart, humans kill apes.” This is how Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape summarises the previous Planet of the Apes reboots. In the third of the Apes prequels (and director Matt Reeves’s second film in the series), the apes are out for revenge, led by a grizzled Caesar (Andy Serkis), whose driving “hate” is stoked by the death of his son at the hands of violent humans. Flanked by his second-in-command, gentle orang-utan Maurice (Karin Konoval), and two other apes, Caesar and co ride on horseback (an image I found beautiful, evocative and bizarre) across beaches, fields and snow-capped mountains to the prison camp where Woody Harrelson’s Colonel has rounded up the remaining apes to build a Trumpian “wall”.
Along the way they pick up a mute child (Amiah Miller) and Bad Ape, an eccentric zoo primate, who help to create and carry out the rescue plan. This isn’t a buddy movie but, rather, a psychological western that breaks and becomes a revenge thriller war movie; trench warfare and Apocalypse Now references are included in the price of the ticket. Michael Giacchino’s whirring score ratchets up the tension, while cinematographer Michael Seresin’s agile camera flies directly overhead. At times, the apes appear tiny, toy-soldier figurines from his bird’s eye perspective; on other occasions, the camera skims puddle-strewn beaches at hoof-level and swings with the apes as they clamber snowy pylons.
The film’s real technological achievement isn’t the rendering of CGI forests (though these are pretty good) but the motion-capture apes themselves, huge liquid eyes (“My God! Almost human!” the Colonel shudders) and facial expressions as thrillingly elastic and legible as the human actors who play them. All science fiction is philosophy; here, Reeves asks what distinguishes humans from animals. The twist is that as the apes get “smarter” (and the humans become crueller), they also grow softer, in a reminder that humanity resides in both the head and the heart.