How 'Planet of the Apes' Can Survive After 'War'

War for the Planet of the Apes Still 3 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
It's hard to see how the trilogy can top itself, but the clues are all in Andy Serkis’ masterful work.

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for War for the Planet of the Apes]

Actor and performance-capture innovator Andy Serkis is the secret to the success of the recently rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise. Series producer Dylan Clark once said that Rise was a “good film, but a great performance [from Serkis].” On a director’s audio commentary, Dawn and War director Matt Reeves said that he was drawn to the series because of Serkis’s performance: “I thought that Andy Serkis's performance, and the way that [special effects workshop] Weta was able to translate the emotion of the performance was so powerful that I found myself identifying with the apes more than the humans in the movie.”

And in behind-the-scenes featurettes, series co-writer Mark Bomback joked that, while a lot of the shooting scripts included detailed descriptions of the apes’ behavior, the writers often hope that Serkis will figure out how to convey complex emotions independently of their contributions: “Sometimes we’ll assume: ‘Andy will pull this off!’”

There's already talk of more from the franchise, but there’s just one problem: Caesar, Serkis’s psychologically complex lead character, dies at the end of War. Caesar’s development, from human experiment to tortured ape leader, grounds all three of the recent films. Even Rise, which starts off as a film about the relationship between a human scientist (James Franco) and his rapidly-evolving ape friend (Serkis), ends as a story about Caesar’s new-found sense of freedom. Reeves has even said that he insisted, during an early stage of his involvement on Dawn, that the story focus more on Caesar since that was the aspect of Rise that most fascinated him. If the Apes franchise is going to hypothetically continue, its cast and creators will have to pay close attention to what Serkis did in the last three films.

Serkis’ contributions speak to the integral role that make-up and special effects has always played in enhancing the performances of the Planet of the Apes’ actors. In Behind the Planet of the Apes, a decent 1998 documentary about the making of the Apes films, late 20th Century Fox studio executive Richard Zanuck recalls how nervous he was that audiences simply would laugh at the make-up job that transforms the film’s human castmembers into apes, calling the film “a very humorous idea if not done properly.”