Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Movie Musing: Going Ape for a Trilogy

With War for the Planet of the Apes we have one of the best film trilogies since The Lord of the Rings completed back in 2003. I know, I was just as surprised as you. If you look back at series that hit the three film mark you are hard pressed to find any that didn’t have at least a single dud in that chain.

Starting with Rise of the Planet of the Apes these films have all had solid to excellent scripts. They created interesting and engaging characters and they have build up each other. I would even argue that the films actually got better as they went along. I loved how Dawn of the Planet of the Apes raised the stakes for the humans, as well as the apes. But the stakes were intertwined in a way that created drama and conflict that you were invested in. War for the Planet of the Apes did the same thing, but it went further, putting Caesar’s very soul at the heart of the film. It is an impressive achievement, and one that I would never have called back in 2011 when the series started.

I wanted to take a look at the various elements that made this series work so well. It isn’t quite a top ten list, because I’m not sure any one element outshines the other. But it is fascinating to see how they all worked together to create one of the best trilogies of film in modern times.

1.  Reworking the older films that had issues, instead of trying to remake what many feel is a classic.
Taking matters into his own hands.
  • This is something that I believe most studios really need to consider. Stop trying to remake and reboot films that are good. Look at the ones that had potential but fell short. Most people will say that Planet of the Apes is one of the best science fiction films of the 1960s, and some will even put it on a list of best science fiction films of all time. Fox made a wise decision to look at Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and rework the ideas presented in that film. It was a good move because people are less familiar with that movie, and it contains plenty of really intriguing ideas and moments that the new trilogy could develop in interesting ways. The most important element from that film (as well as Battle for the Planet of the Apes) is the character of Caesar.
2. Willingness to focus on the apes as the central characters

Sharing the story.
  • Rise did start with James Franco’s character as our main protagonist, but Caesar gets plenty of screen time and his story is just as important to the film. I’d say they share the film. But starting with Dawn, Caesar takes center stage, and with him the rest of the apes civilization. The creators could have tried to shoehorn a human into the main plot to act as an audience surrogate, but they resisted. Instead, human interactions are used to compare and contrast with the apes. There are key human characters in Dawn and War, but they never take the spotlight away form Caesar or his people. It was a bold decision, but one that put faith in the audience as well as the ability of the visuals to allow the audience to relate to the apes.
3.  Utilizing impressive visuals but keeping them in service of the story and characters
Road rage!
  • One of the main reasons it was a good time to revisit the Planet of the Apes franchise is that special effects technology is to the point where realistic ape characters can be created using state of the art technology. These movies share the same source material with the 70s films, but visually are very different. These apes look like actual apes, not people with ape heads. I’m not slighting the 60s and 70s films. They look very good for the makeup available at the time. But they create a more alien looking view of the apes. The current trilogy feels more grounded in what we understand as reality. But it isn’t just the impressive special effects, but the overall visual tone of the films. Director Matt Reeves gives Dawn and War a grim feeling that fits this view of one world dying and a new one beginning. It gives the new trilogy a cohesive feeling that was lacking in the earlier series. Finally these films have impressive visuals, but all of them are in service to the story and characters. There is very little visual showboating here. Yes you are blown away by some action sequences, but everything feels like it pushes the story forward, or is part of the themes of the series.
4.  Impeccable cast willing to commit to roles and stories
Kobe shows his laughing face... scary.
  • Even when you have all the wonderful special effects in the world at your side, if you don’t have a cast that is willing and able to pull off the characters you’ll be in trouble. Luckily each film is blessed with some outstanding performances. The highlight is Andy Serkis, who gives us a Caesar that is relatable, admirable and yet flawed. It is a great character, and Serkis steps up to the challenge of not only delivering such a nuanced performance over all three films, but doing so with so few words. Body language and eyes are the key elements for all the ape performers, and we get so many good ones. Karin Konoval as Maurice is pitch perfect in her role. Steve Zahn as Bad Ape in War provides just the right amount of eccentricity and levity to the dark film. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the powerhouse performance that Toby Kebbell unleashed as the conflicted Koba in Dawn. These performances make us believe in the apes as characters, and why we get so attached to their story as it continues.
5.  Allowing the music to have emotional weight in the film.
Caesar doubts the veracity of your claim.
  • There is a trend in “serious” Hollywood films today that film music should not call any attention to itself. It shouldn’t be emotional. It shouldn’t do anything but just kind of sit there in the background, droning away because we need a score of some kind and we don’t want the audience to feel manipulated. I wish I was exaggerating, but sadly I’m not. Now you could argue if these three films are “serious” or not, but I think we could have easily ended up with a low key droning score on these. The filmmakers decided to actually allow the music to be heard and to carry emotions. The two composers who worked on the series, Patrick Doyle and Michael Giacchino, were allowed to build scores that were heard clearly in the film. The music took on additional importance for Dawn and War where so many of the characters are not speaking actual words, but expressing feelings with their eyes and body language. The music does some heavy lifting in these films. It gives us a wonderful theme for the Apes (and Caesar) that carries over the two movies and showcases the strength of those characters. Understanding how powerful and effective the music needed to be in these films was vital and it pleases me to read so many reviews of War that say how effective Giacchino’s score is in context. Check out some samples of the scores here.
6.  Understanding pacing and atmosphere to build tension.
A shaky truce is about to go south.
  • How easy would it have been to go the standard blockbuster route with these new apes films? Very easy indeed. Even with a title like War for the Planet of the Apes, the action sequences are restrained. Instead the films focus on building atmosphere and tension, so that when the big set pieces arrive, they have impact. Rise of the Planet of the Apes almost feels like a medical drama for the first half of the film, but it earns the climactic battle on the Golden Gate bridge. Dawn did up the action quotient, but did so by having the big sequences pull the characters in various directions emotionally and us right along with it. Those scenes in Dawn are nerve-racking because we are invested in Caesar’s dilemma and Koba’s conflict. War opens with a terrifying action sequence and then proceeds to go into tension building mode as the stakes get raised to almost unbearable levels. The final climax feels earned and cathartic when it hits. And because of the well-written scripts, the climax fits not just the film, but the whole trilogy as well.
7.  Tying all three scripts together.
Apes using eagle vision?
  • I’m not sure if the overarching story for these three films was written at once, or if Dawn and War were written with close attention paid to the previous installments of the current series. In any case the scripts of these three films builds on each other. This is actually something that franchise stories not based on existing material run into problems with. Too many times we have sequels that seem to exist in a vacuum with only passing attention paid to the earlier installments (especially in horror series). But these films tell a continuous story, with Caesar as our central character. Dawn could not work without the events of Rise. War would not play out as it does without the story told in Dawn. Care was taken with these scripts and you can tell.
8.  Providing nods to the older series.
Maurice and Nova are both call back names.
  • Even while these films forge their own path, they also take the time to provide nods to the films of the 1960s and 70s. I think Rise went a little too far with it. But the other two films don’t call attention to the references, but work them organically with the story. Someone who isn’t familiar with the older films will not feel like they are missing anything when they meet characters named Cornelius or Nova. But those who are familiar with the older movies will find an added layer to these films to enjoy. The new series doesn’t mock the older one (yeah I’m looking at you 2010 Clash of the Titans), but respects it for what it did and how it inspired these new films.
9.  Keeping to the grey zone.
It is the end of the world, and the colonel doesn't feel fine.
  • One of the elements I really like about this series is that there are no good guys and bad guys. There are protagonists and antagonists. We understand the motivation of nearly all the characters in these films, and while we may not agree with them, we can empathize with them. James Franco’s character in Rise is not a mad scientist, but a man who cares deeply about his father and Caesar. His actions eventually doom the human race, but they were done to help humankind. But at the same time his is rash and bit selfish, flaws that allow events to spiral out of his control. This continues into Dawn where the humans and apes have members that are filled with fear and hate. It is those individuals who drive the action of the story into darker and darker levels. It is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. You can see how it is all going wrong, no matter what everyone tries to do. The tension from that conflict is still one of the best in the series. War presents us with a human faction that seems to be evil on the surface. But the more we learn about them and the reasons why the Colonel is pushing the attack so hard, we realize that the stakes for humanity have never been higher. We can empathize with the man, even as he does horrible things to Caesar and his people. In the end, we cheer for the apes, because they are oppressed. Caesar is the one that tries to maintain peace and is willing to open a helping hand to humanity. But like many leaders before him, he is constantly challenged. Sometimes it is by humans, sometimes it is by his own people and finally it is by his own emotions.
10.  Committing to the tone.
The quality of mercy...
  • Now I’m going to sound like a bit of hypocrite here. I have lamented in the past about all the Hollywood blockbusters that were so dire and dower in tone after The Dark Knight became a huge hit. Rise came out right when that was still in full swing, and it was one of the reasons I missed the film in theaters. But I think the difference here is that the Planet of the Apes series as a whole has always had a very serious feel to it. They aren’t fun movies, but they are engaging movies. This new series falls into that same tone. We are dealing with the end of the human race after all. But I think the creators did such a good job balancing the tone just right. All three films have characters you can relate to, and hope for. They aren’t relentlessly depressing and dower just because they are trying to be cool. They are dealing with grim situations and the characters are reacting the best way they can. It feels right and earned. The creators never cheapen it by overplaying the mood, or trying to cut it with comic relief. Now War does contain the character of Bad Ape, who does bring some chuckles to the dark film. But his character has a tragic story, and even though his reactions can bring a smile or a laugh, we also feel bad for the guy. He is only reacting that way because of what happened to him before Caesar and his crew run into him. It is a dangerous character to introduce in that kind of film, but he is played and written perfectly. The tone was preserved and it delivers the impact it needs to. And as I mentioned above, the films could have veered off into pure action spectacle or gotten really ridiculous as they went along. But they stayed committed to the dark tone. It is an impressive feat that all three films are still engaging to watch and rewatch, even with such dark subject matter at the heart.

So those are my 10 reasons why this film trilogy is the best trilogy of films since Lord of the Rings. Did I miss something you think makes these work? Or do you have another trilogy that you think works just as well, or even better? Leave a comment and I’ll be sure respond (even to you Twilight fans out there).

Caesar in search for the dish best served cold.


  1. As opposed to a series (ala “The Thin Man” series, which has the same characters but doesn’t have a defined story arc), a trilogy is a great format with the proper material and with the condition that that each entry has some merit as a standalone film. It mirrors the standard Three Act format of single movie: I) set up the characters and situation, II) get the characters into a fix out of which they can’t possibly get, and III) get them out of it. It applies to most prose fiction, too, though Mark Twain once defied reader expectations in the crossdressing “A Medieval Romance” by giving up at the end of II: “The truth is, I have got my hero (or heroine) into such a particularly close place, that I do not see how I am ever going to get him (or her) out of it again--and therefore I will wash my hands of the whole business, and leave that person to get out the best way that offers--or else stay there. I thought it was going to be easy enough to straighten out that little difficulty, but it looks different now.”

    I haven’t seen these films through yet, but it’s good to know the elements came together. All around well-crafted movies and trilogies (on occasion tetralogies, though these usually are examples of studios milking a franchise) are rare enough to deserve a shout-out.

    1. I had never heard that story about Mark Twain, and not heard of "A Medieval Romance" either. But I can totally understand his sentiment. I've worked on several stories where I was unable to craft a satisfactory ending. Usually it because I write myself into a corner or haven't really crafted something that builds well enough. Landing the ending is pretty difficult.

      Trilogies just feel right when they work together well. But they usually falter somewhere in that last episode, and that is why it is surprising when they click. These Apes films certainly pull it off. Word on the street is that they want to make more, but I do hope that they give us some space after the events of "War". There are plenty of stories to tell, maybe even a Maurice centric storyline. But I would love them to take their time and really come up with something great instead of rushing it and we end up with something like "The Matrix" trilogy.