May 29, 2024

OPINION: Monkey business

Lost in Scene

When it comes to blockbusters, I have mixed feelings. Most of the time, they’re examples of a film industry that is forced to make profits or die, where creative thinking is only justified by the box office. The summer blockbuster season despite being immensely profitable is where I typically burnout from viewing new movies, preferring to watch a backlog of movies at home until Oscar season.

However, when a blockbuster truly exceeds the studio background, becoming a mixture of high concepts, big budgets and creativity, that is where magic in movies can be found. When accessibility meets thought, that’s when the blockbuster succeeds.

For the first time this weekend, I watched the 2010s’ “Planet of the Apes” trilogy, which received a new fourth installment this month (I have no interest in viewing it at this point in time). I’m typically harsher to franchise-based movies, but I found myself drawn in and flabbergasted by my own enjoyment in a way I haven’t felt in quite a while.

Across three movies there is a shocking amount of intelligence, something that feels so rare to find in this type of blockbuster. From “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” there’s revolutionary angst, from “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” there’s Cold War politics, and “War for the Planet of the Apes,” there’s self-reflection.

The irony of “Apes” is the core science fiction lie. It’s my favorite type of science fiction, where its high concept idea of ape society is a disguise that shrouds its intrinsically human narrative. As the apes grow in intelligence across the trilogy, it’s hard to tell where these motion-capture CGI performances end and the humans begin. Apes are funny creatures, but the trilogy doesn’t toe the line on how we should view the apes, taking itself completely seriously.

What makes the “Apes” trilogy special are the heavy dramatic narratives, and they excel. To claim that any movie about a society of monkeys should be taken seriously is absurd, but it’s true. “Rise” features an ape revolution that holds tension reminiscent of heist movies. “Dawn’s” slow building of diplomatic relationships (which feels insane to write in a movie about monkeys) gets mangled into all-out war. “War” lands the trilogy in a moment of introspection.

All of this is seen through one of the decade’s strongest characters in film, Caesar, the chimpanzee warlord who leads the apes into revolution and war. Despite the CGI transformation, Andy Serkis’ physical presence is working overtime to overcome the biggest challenge in the trilogy. If Serkis can’t provide a performance that is not only believable but captivating, the trilogy falls apart.

This is far from the case as Serkis becomes the key element of the trilogy, building Caesar into an imposing figure for the apes. With each additional film, Serkis pulls off the impossible. He’s grim, with a memorable scowl that shines through the CGI and defines the character. There’s little bravado, making the stillness of the character a remarkable feature and tool to raise tension. As Caesar stands alongside much larger gorillas, you might be mistaken for thinking the gorillas are the biggest threat.

I’m a strong believer that nature is the most powerful force in the universe. “Rise” features Caesar’s first English word, a loud, defiant “No!” which is a perfect choice. It’s a moment that sets up the trilogy’s central character as a revolutionary that defies human complacency, cruelty and incompetence. He grasps leadership of his army, his people. It’s a simple showing of nature’s power, while the rest of the trilogy leaves the Earth covered in vegetation and abandoned.

Alongside Caesar in his ape society is Koba, who serves as a driving example of human cruelty. Before revolution, Koba was experimented on, a pincushion for human experimentation, leaving him physically and mentally scarred and with a deep hatred for humans. This becomes justification for violence against the remaining humans.

Koba takes many forms throughout the trilogy, from side character in “Rise,” main antagonist in “Dawn,” and haunting reminder of anger in “War.” The character makes the introspection present in “War” fitting, as an extreme figure of comparison that is inescapable for Caesar. Violence, anger and revenge are shamed by both humanity and the ape society that Caesar builds, which makes the dichotomy between Koba’s violent tendencies and Caesar’s attempted restraint fascinating to witness.

The “Apes” trilogy marks three distinct segments of an overarching story that is hard to find in today’s industry of cinematic universes. A distinct beginning, middle and end form a trilogy that punches above its typical genre class. Apes may rule the world, but they’re still astoundingly human.

Nick Pauly

News Reporter for Creston News Advertiser. Raised and matured in the state of Iowa, Nick Pauly developed a love for all forms of media, from books and movies to emerging forms of media such as video games and livestreaming.