Whenever a modern remake of a classic movie franchise is announced, one cannot help but reflexively raise an eyebrow like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson encountering a jabroni out in the wild. Naturally I was apprehensive when Fox decided they wanted to transform the classic sci-fi of Planet of the Apes into a sprawling modern movie saga, but when I first saw 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it caught me completely off guard. It was so good, so emotional, and it made me so invested in these impeccably acted and visually stunning computer-generated primates. Now, some six years later, War for the Planet of the Apes, the third film in the what may be the best realized film franchise of the last decade and one of the must-see picks in our massive summer movie guide, is poised to hit theaters on July 14, 2017. This will mark the end of the trilogy of stories that began in 2011's Rise, but it won't be the end of the franchise, according to producer Peter Chernin, whom I spoke to over the phone in an exclusive interview this week.
"Well, what I would say is that it is--and recognize this is a little bit hedging--meant to complete this Caesar arc," Chernin said with a laugh. "It was meant to complete a story that began when Caesar was born and a bunch of medical experiments were carried out on apes, and they became intelligent and violently intelligent. Inevitably, it was going to lead to this place, and Caesar's obviously the vehicle for telling that story. So, I think people will find this an incredibly satisfying finale. This story is Caesar."
Indeed, Caesar, the hyperintelligent ape played by Andy Serkis, has been both the emotional and narrative throughline of the series; we've seen him go from innocent lab experiment to the leader of an entire species (and its attendant army). Without Serkis' nuanced, emotionally charged performance, the Planet of the Apes franchise would not pack nearly as much of a punch as it does, but that is also in part due the technological achievement of these films.
"The level of special effects stuff and the level of physical production and vision in this movie is crazy," Chernin said. "I think most people don't realize when we did Rise, it was the first time anyone had ever done [motion-capture] on location, and frankly, the only location that we did was in the backyard of the house and we did it kind of in the street in front of the house. That was the first time mo-cap had ever been done on location, and then by Dawn, we were obviously doing mo-cap in the woods and so forth. Here, we're out on top of mountains, and it's crazy the stuff that's there. We're doing CG mo-cap in these crazy, crazy locations."
Yet, at the end of the day, what makes these movies work is Caesar and seeing his evolution as both an animal and a leader. War for the Planet of the Apes will put Caesar through the most brutal, emotionally grueling challenges he has faced to date, both in the form of traitors within his own tribe and the menacing threat posed by Woody Harrelson's villainous character, "The Colonel."
"Caesar is as much tested by himself in this movie as he is by Woody [Harrelson's character], and I think that's one of the things that's remarkable about the story--Caesar is really tested in his own beliefs and his own wants," Chernin explained. "One of the things that we've worked hard on this movie is things are not always as they seem, and there's really complexity in the relationships among the apes, and you can obviously see from the trailer and from the poster that there's a whole group of 'traitor apes.' It's not as smooth there as you think, and frankly, the same thing is true there on the human's side. You know, neither side is this one model of where everyone agrees with each other, so this is not only a conflict between humans and apes, but it's a conflict between apes and apes and humans and humans."
That being said, the threat posed by Harrelson's character is not to be downplayed by any means.
"[The Colonel] looks at this as a holy war, and you can see hints of that in the trailer," Chernin told me. "He views this as a war for the future of life on Earth and has no ambiguity about that. At the same time, he deeply admires and respects Caesar. The Colonel is not an empty villain or heartless one. I think he comes to realize through the course of this movie that [Caesar] is an extraordinarily gifted, smart leader who he has a lot of respect for. I think that makes him a really, really interesting villain, or antagonist in this case."
Chernin's history with the Planet of the Apes franchise is longer than many realize, as it turns out. When he was the head of 20th Century Fox, some 25 years ago, Chernin began the process of developing a reboot of Planet of the Apes; this project turned into Tim Burton's 2001 Planet of the Apes adaptation some six or seven years after he'd left the studio. It was a franchise that he had always loved because it was "relevant and timely almost to any time in history," and so when the opportunity came to bring it to modern audiences, he leapt on it.
Much like time was a flat circle, so was my conversation with Chernin, which inevitably touched upon what the future holds for the Planet of the Apes franchise following War. Will it stay grounded in the gritty, honest realism of this trilogy, or will they push the franchise to some of the crazier places of the original films, like Escape from Planet of the Apes?
"From the moment we started this, we looked at this as one story, as one trilogy, and so we have never thought about doing [something as far-out as Escape from Planet of the Apes]," said Chernin. "We've been thinking about what subsequent Apes movies might look like, and we've been doing a lot of talking over the last six months about what others Apes movies we might do. There may be things that are more radical, but this has always been driven by one narrative arc and, frankly, by a specific group of characters. And as a result of that, it's been very tonally consistent. Look, I can't guarantee anything, but I'd be shocked if we ever did something this tonally, wildly different as they did in some of those early movies."
Long story short, don't get your hopes up for a time-traveling Caesar anytime soon...but then again, never say never.
War for the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matt Reeves, hits theaters on July 14, 2017.
Images: 20th Century Fox