It’s a jungle out there in the new trailer for War for the Planet of the Apes (watch it above), the third installment in Fox’s rebooted science fiction series. With heavy overtones of Vietnam War movies, the new film (in theaters July 14, 2017) chronicles the final showdown between plague-decimated humankind and the intelligent ape society that has risen in its place.
The trailer shows the battle from both sides: We hear the ape leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis), tell the humans, “I did not start this war. I offered you peace. I showed you mercy. But now you are here. To finish us off. For good.” The humans’ leader, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson, his shaved head and wild-eyed steeliness reminiscent of Marlon Brando‘s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now), believes that his people are on the verge of extinction. “All of human history has led to this moment,” he tells the apes. “The irony is we created you. And nature has been punishing us ever since. This is our last stand. And if we lose, it will be a planet of apes.” An image of the Colonel putting a gun to Caesar’s head, and Caesar staring defiantly into his eyes, shows that both are prepared to kill or die for their species.
On Thursday, Yahoo Movies attended a preview screening of Fox’s biggest 2017 titles, which included three scenes from War for the Planet of the Apes. Like the footage shown earlier this year at Comic-Con, the scenes contained unfinished animation; in most shots, the apes were fully animated, but sometimes they were incompletely rendered, and a few shots simply showed the actors in their motion-capture suits. Director Matt Reeves, who attended the screening with star Steve Zahn (he’s playing a new ape character — we’ll get to that in a moment), announced that he was “horrified” to show unfinished footage to the press. But in fact, it was fascinating to watch actors like Serkis perform their characters without the ape trappings, and really drove home how much the actors’ performances come through in the incredibly detailed, lifelike motion-capture animation from the digital FX whizzes at Weta.
The first scene shown at the preview was the opening of the film: a woodland battle between apes and humans that plays like a cross between the Battle of Endor and Apocalypse Now. The parallels to Vietnam War films are explicit, including battle slogans scrawled on human soldiers’ helmets (“Bedtime for Bonzo,” “Monkey Killer”), and their referring to the enemy as “Kong” (as in “King Kong,” not “Viet Cong”). Surprisingly, not all apes are siding with their own species; the human battalion in the opening scene contains a gorilla. After the humans pepper the apes with machine gun fire, the apes fight back with a volley of arrows. There are significant casualties on both sides; if there was any doubt that Apes was positioning itself as a heart-of-darkness war film, they’ll disappear within the first few minutes.
Next, the crowd previewed the same scene shown at Comic-Con: a sad, touching moment with the feel of a post-apocalyptic Western, in which Caesar and his friends discover an orphaned human girl in an isolated house.
The final scene shown to the audience at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater was the most revelatory: En route to the humans’ hidden mountain camp, where Caesar hopes to communicate face-to-face with the Colonel, the apes encounter a chimpanzee who long ago escaped from a zoo. Called “Bad Ape” because he learned to speak from observing humans (and that’s how they referred to him), the character played by Steve Zahn has a goofy innocence, but is also half-crazed from the horrors he has witnessed (including a military camp that he calls the “human zoo.”) He’s a tragicomic figure who will no doubt add some levity to a seriously dark, but compelling, journey. Moreover, his existence reveals that there are other intelligent apes in the world beyond Caesar and his soldiers.
“There’s this grand, growing snowball of a mystery that is happening,” director Reeves told the audience. And when Caesar eventually finds the Colonel, “that mystery explodes.” In other words: War for the Planet of the Apes, despite being the third film in the series (after Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), is most likely not the end.
The most exciting thing about the new Apes films has always been the creatures themselves, who look even more astoundingly real in the new footage. Reeves explained that he pushed Weta’s motion-capture animators even further for War, shooting the actors on location (rather than against a green screen) in challenging conditions like a snowstorm and the deep woods. Serkis’ portrayal of Caesar also continues to mine unexpected depths; in the new film, the ape leader is visibly hardened by battle, and struggles to maintain empathy for the humans he once loved. Serkis has created an indelible character over the course of the three films, and it will be fascinating to see where this one takes him.
‘War Has Begun’: Watch the previously released ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ short teaser: