This year at the movies, humans have to face up to attack from transforming robots and giant dino-lizards, and watch on as our superpowered protectors battle evil villains. But the most intriguing battle, and the one closest to home, is mankind versus monkeys. In Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, set 10 years after the simian uprising and viral pandemic that began at the end of 2011’s excellent Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, a bunch of virus survivors encounter the ape community that has flourished as puny humans were almost wiped out. It is no spoiler to learn that harmonious co-existence does not ensue. Andy Serkis, reprising his motion-captured role as ape leader Caesar, and Keri Russell, leading lady Ellie of the survivors, tell their sides of the story.
THE RED BULLETIN: So how does Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes break, from the point of view of your species?
ANDY SERKIS: We’re in a rather idyllic utopian society, that Caesar has created, into which, very shortly, the humans arrive. He’s the leader who has brought order to the tribes of gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. The apes watched the humans dwindle away; they believed that humans had gone until the intrusion into their realm. This sparks up in Caesar a very complicated chain of reactions – how to find accord with the humans, rather than fighting against them.
KERI RUSSELL: The humans have struggled, and the survivors that are left are so damaged. They have lost so much and they are clinging to each other, in a kind of fragile peace that they have created for themselves. And, for various reasons, they have to go into the woods where they encounter the apes. For each side there is the innate need to protect your family and the people you love. And at the beginning, neither side is really aware of the other’s situation.
Even in the trailer, you can see there’s more to the conflict than just the battle.
KR: Matt Reeves, the director, talked a lot about the idea of the thinking man versus the animal instinct, that war, that struggle. Which is difficult in this case because Caesar is so enlightened, and when I say there is a nobility to him, he does have that. He seems fair. In a way, animal instinct is fair, it’s true: fight or flight, eat or don’t eat. It’s less murky, less fuzzy, than we can be in our complicated lives.
AS: Both tribes in this film are families: the theme of the film is family. An overriding sense what you would do to protect your own. Tribalism and… empathy and prejudice. Some of the humans are very prejudiced against the apes. Some of the apes are prejudiced against the humans. The humans are going through this awful period of survival, the end of resources, whereas the apes can survive with very little and humans are desperately struggling to survive. So power, in the sense of resources, is what causes the humans to come into the apes’ territory, to reactivate a hydro plant so they can have electricity. That’s what sparks the conflict.
What about your characters’ relationship with each another?
AS: Caesar is married with a teenage son and an infant child. He gets to know some of the humans, trying to find a peaceful way of working with them. Two of them are Malcolm, Jason Clarke’s character, and Ellie. Malcolm is a scientist, trying to reactivate a power plant. They’re together. Malcolm lost his wife and has a teenage son. There’s a commonality between them and Caesar’s family and a close relationship develops between Ellie and Caesar.
KR: Ellie was a nurse, fighting the virus for years. Now, the ones who are left have realized that they are immune. The virus was a simian flu, so there is a lot of fear surrounding that, but because of Ellie’s medical background, she knows it was created by scientists. She is less frightened by the apes and more astounded by their appearance and what has happened. She really cares for Caesar and recognizes straight away that he’s not just a regular ape.
What are the challenges of playing someone on your side of the battle, compared with the other side?
KR: Us humans, we’re just out there, a little bit naked, in the apes’ space. Andy is so invested, and you are there with him, in it. That goes for all the other actors who play apes. Parkour guys were hired to do tricks. It was stunning.
AS: About 95 per cent of it was shot on location, out in the rainforests at Vancouver, in late winter and early spring. It was freezing. Then we went down to New Orleans, hit summer, and were shooting in 100 per cent humidity. Believe me, you would not want to stand next to someone wearing a motion-capture suit in the middle of summer. It’s physically hard work, because you use muscles you wouldn’t use acting a human character.
Would you like to be on the other side?
AS: Oh God, no. Absolutely not. The heart of these movies is the apes, their metaphor for the human condition.
KR: I would be an ape girl. The battle is always interesting to dissect, it’s less murky, less fuzzy, than we can be in our complicated lives. Plus, it’s really incredible what [apes actors] do.
Why do people seem to like the Apes franchise so much? It’s been rebooted twice and has lasted for eight films (and a TV series and a cartoon) over 46 years?
AS: It does have a strange, enduring quality. Obviously, the anthropomorphism of animals still holds great interest for us. We watch a lot of wildlife programs, and what’s interesting is that we all secretly anthropomorphize the animals when we watch these documentaries, we like to be able to relate to animals. So in the movies, to have these characters throwing the mirror right back at us is important, as well as entertaining. You are able to say things that would sound polemic if they were told in a more conventional way.
KR: Aside from the sci-fi element, which is incredibly attractive and mysterious, and which will go on forever, I feel like I see this story in the news every day. Two different civilizations trying to understand each other, a family trying to protect itself, parents trying to protect their children. Trying to survive, when that’s what the other side is trying to do, too, but all this other stuff gets in the way. That’s the resonance of the story for all this time.
Making the original Planet Of The Apes movie in 1968, actors playing apes sat with their own kind at lunch. It was a tribal thing. Did anything like that happen making this film?
KR: That’s really funny. It was sort of like that. I think the main reason might be because the actors who were involved in the ape training were together for months before the actors playing humans came down, so there was a bit of camp-versus-camp, for sure. Those are your people.
During breaks on set, did people practice their impressions of Charlton Heston’s famous line from the first Apes film: “take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”?
AS: Have I ever tried to say that? I don’t think I have, but I could if I was forced to.
KR: There was none of that. As much as I thought I would be laughing and joking about ape things, I wasn’t. Everyone was so good and so into it. We were all into it; sincere but not too serious.
With franchise sequels, there’s often a feeling of a reheated version of an earlier film, but Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes seems like it’s very different from Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes?
KR: This one is dramatically different, a big leap from the last one, especially visually. They had a whole new take on it. Matt has made it kind of magnificent. It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen something so epic-looking.
AS: Matt, who is brilliant, goes through the heart and soul, the emotional content, of this movie. It is ambiguous, too. It’s not giving any answers. Life is complicated, and so it is for the apes and humans. It’s a very good mirror to the current world situation: people trying to survive with regime change and absolutism. It goes back to the heart of what the original films were doing – the metaphorical nature of these movies should not be underestimated. If you’re going to be in a blockbuster movie, for me personally, these are the ones I would want to be in because they’ve got something to say before wowing with visual effects. It feels very real, almost historical.
You can’t spoil the movie, but what about a real-life humans versus apes conflict: who would win?
AS: It comes down to firepower at the end of the day. But the apes, as they get more intelligent, can pretty much survive where humans need resources. They can’t hunt or find food anymore. I’m banking on the apes, really.
KR: Well, you know, these movies are called Planet Of The Apes, not Planet Of The Humans.
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is out worldwide from July 11
Bananas grow on trees; so does Apes movie money
Planet Of The Apes (1968)
First film; all-time sci-fi classic and one of all cinema’s best endings.
Box office: $32.6m*
Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970)
Charlton H back, underground, in a silly anti-cult/anti-nuclear parable.
Box office: $19m*
Escape From Of The Planet Of The Apes (1971)
Apes flee to then-present-day Earth; best sequel is exciting and moving.
Box office: $12.3m*
Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972)
“The apes are revolting!” Yes, they are, and this film’s not much better.
Box office: $9.7m*
Battle For The Planet Of The Apes (1973)
First wave fizzles out; tired, cheap-looking man-v-monkey match-up.
Box office: $8.8m*
Planet Of The Apes (2001)
Tim Burton plus Mark Wahlberg plus ace make-up winds up being not so hot.
Box office: $362.2**
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)
Second reboot: old-style, smart blockbuster and surprise critical success.
Box office: $481.8m**
US$, unadjusted for inflation
*US only **Worldwide