The intelligence-enhanced ape from Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes center stage in this sequel, which begins ten years after the last film. The virus we saw infecting the human population has now wiped out almost all human life. The assorted apes, led by Caesar, have asserted their primacy over other animals. In the opening scene, we see them hunting with spears they have crafted, killing a bear, and riding on horses. They live in homes they have constructed from logs, communicate — mostly via sign language — teach their children the alphabet in school, and have an organized society, with Caesar as their leader. They demonstrate loyalty and tenderness. They adorn themselves; Caesar’s mate wears a small crown.
Ceasar is played by the brilliant motion-capture actor/artist Andy Serkis and the CGI work of the geniuses at Weta Digital. The seamless integration of the CGI characters and the human characters and the subtlety of the apes’ eyes and facial expressions brings us straight into the story, underscored by the immersive 3D. It is dramatic, not stuntish, with the possible exception of some spear-throwing toward the screen.
The film recalls old-school cowboys-and-Indians westerns, with the apes riding into battle on horses and the humans and their armory holed up in the ruins of San Francisco like it is Fort Apache. Then the apes get the guns, and everything escalates fast. The film wisely gives both groups of primates a range of characters, some wise and trustworthy, some bigoted and angry. Both species have to learn that respect has to be based on character and actions, not on genetics. The division is not between man and ape but between those who can envision a future with cooperation and trust and those who cannot.
There are some thoughtful details. The destroyed city tells the story of a decade of unthinkable loss and also of great courage. A dropped sketchbook conveys information that in a world without mass communications is revelatory. A long-unheard CD plays The Band and we see the humans react, thinking of where they were the last time they heard it and what access to electricity could mean for them now. The humans have the advantage of knowing how to create and use power; they also have the disadvantage of needing it.
In the midst of the battle, there is a quiet moment when a small mixed group hides out together in a location with a lot of resonance from the previous film. It lends a solemnity to the story, even a majesty, that gives it weight. Even those who seem from our perspective to be making decisions that are disastrously wrong do so for reasons we can understand. The action is compelling but it is the ideas behind them that hold us.
Parents should know that this film includes constant peril and violence, post-apocalyptic themes and images, many characters injured and killed, guns, fire, drinking, smoking, and some strong language.
Family discussion: Why were there so many different opinions within both the ape and the human communities? How did they choose their governing structure? Why didn’t Carver want to listen to Ellie’s explanation of the source of the virus?
If you like this, try: the original “Apes” movies to compare not just the stories but the technology used by the filmmakers