20th Century Fox                2 hours 22 minutes                               PG-13

This is a film of epic and even Biblical proportions. Andy Serkis portrays Caesar, the genetically modified, intelligent ape who is more human than the humans he and his tribe are fighting.

Serkis’ performance is stunning. Can the performance of a character created with motion caption special effects be eligible for an Academy Award? We think his is definitely worth considering. He had to act out every scene and every line and the range of emotion he conveys throughout the film draws you in. He is incredible. He says there’s no mystery to motion capture and you have to act like the character, learn choreography like a dancer and get caught up in who you are playing. With special effects enhancing the eyes, it’s made to look even more real.

Caesar started as a young chimp who grew up with humans, was rejected as a teen, and then fought his way up to become a revolutionary leader over the course of the 3 films. Serkis shows an uncanny ability to convey what he calls “emotional intelligence.” Director Matt Reeves wrote the screenplay with Mark Bomback. Both also worked on the 2nd film in the trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Caesar becomes an avenger and defender, while the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), in charge of the human soldiers, is using whatever he can to punish the apes so the humans can win out. He is head of a concentration camp that reminded us of the Holocaust or even the way Pharaoh worked slaves to make the pyramids. And efforts for the apes’ escape reminded us of classic films. Interesting since Reeves and Bomback say they watched everything from The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai to Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments among the many films which they say influenced this production. Caesar even reminded us of a somewhat Moses by the end.

The director created these apes to appear as if we humans are looking at ourselves. The most human character is actually Caesar, trying to keep as many of his kind alive. Reeves was even surprised at what Serkis brought to the role saying the actor explored his character and came up with more intensity than even he expected.

The action picks up 2 years after the last film. Caesar is the commander of the apes fighting for survival after the humans contracted Simian flu from the apes. It leaves many humans speechless, sick or dead. Both humans and apes are now fighting for survival. Who will ultimately inhabit the Earth?

From the beginning of the film, we see soldiers with goals written on the back of their helmets like “Bedtime for Bonzo,” or “Monkey Killer.” Caesar is trying to keep his tribe safe and out of the line of fire. He tries to keep them calm, but when they suffer so many losses, he gets more determined and willing to be more violent to protect his “people.”

The conditions in the camp the Colonel runs are deplorable. No food, water, beatings and more. But even more evil is the Colonel’s mission to wipe the apes out. Harrelson’s bald head, smirky sneer and searing blue eyes are chilling. How he treats Caesar will make you squirm in your seat.

Harrelson was intense in The Hunger Games and True Detective, but even more intense here. Harrelson actually worked with the writer and we find out his motivation which adds another layer to this character. It will make you wonder what other evil doings are going on in his head. The Colonel’s henchman is actually a Western lowland gorilla named Red who was an ally of Koba, Caesar’s arch enemy in the last film. He’s another meany.  

You will fall in love with the huge Bornean Orangutan, Maurice (played by Karin Konoval). Maurice is Caesar’s right hand and is a gentle giant. When he finds a little girl, Nova (played by Amiah Miller) who has been abandoned and can’t speak, Maurice takes pity and begs to take the war orphan along on his back. Caesar is reticent. She could slow them down, or become a target. Maurice wins out, adopts the little girl and shows the apes as even more human in the process.

One of our favorite characters in the film is Bad Ape played with reckless abandon by Steve Zahn. Bad Ape lived in a zoo before the Simian outbreak and stayed to himself before running into Caesar. He is a hoot! He’s a chimp who learned speech from his handlers at the Portland Zoo, but he escaped. Zahn loved the name given not because he’s so bad, but more because he’s mischievous. He’s like a little elf with tons of personality. He gives a little relief from the seriousness of their plight, but is right there for Caesar. Reeves says Zahn made him cry when he saw his Skype audition being heartbreaking, yet funny. He is so animated and so different than the other apes and very entertaining.

The cinematography of the vistas, the jungle, and the snowy mountainous landscape, was shot in Vancouver, Canada. The sets are beautiful in stark contrast to the fear and fighting between the apes and humans. One set built was reportedly the size of 2 football fields.

This is a well constructed film with good pacing and understandable motivations. The characters are well developed and, you can feel their conflict and emotion, especially in the closeups. Worthy performances by all, especially Serkis and Harrelson. Even more, this film will make you wonder what it really means to be human.

See video of Andy Serkis motion capture  transformation here