In the original 1968 “Planet of the Apes,” the walking, talking simians proved the big draw. But the movie’s undisputed star was Charlton Heston, who, as astronaut George Taylor, wakes up in a world turned upside down.
The science fiction classic yielded iconic moments and lines – nearly all with Heston at the center. “You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! God damn you all to hell!” Taylor cries in the shadow of what’s left of the Statue of Liberty, in the still-chilling final scene.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which opens Friday, may be the second film in the latest reimagining of the series, but it represents a new beginning: There’s no doubt that this time Caesar, the leader of the apes, is the star of the show. And unlike his 1960s and 1970s cinematic predecessors, who, to varying degrees, acted human, strong-willed Caesar isn’t his own man – he's his own ape.
The shift marks a natural evolution of sorts, both in the “Planet of the Apes” story and in storytelling techniques: Performance capture technology lets actor Andy Serkis embody Caesar, in the same way he helped change movies by giving pathetic life to Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films.
The other major step forward comes with “Dawn” and its 2011 reboot predecessor, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” starting the action, more or less, where the last two movies in the original series ended more than 40 year ago. That makes Caesar the series’ pivotal figure from the outset, instead of just the eventually revealed missing link in the circular chicken-or-egg structure of the original five movies. (The less said the better about Tim Burton’s 2001 "Planet of the Apes” remake.)
Like the initial series, the current “Apes” films also draw power from reflecting its times. The 1960s and 1970s flicks were widely seen as commentary on the Cold War and the fight for civil rights. The latest edition, in which the rise of the apes coincides with the spread of a man-made virus that ravages humankind, taps into inequality while playing on environmental concerns and fears of science run amok. In both renderings, we’re our own worst enemy, not the apes.
Caesar, whose intelligence stems largely from an injection of the virus, is a product of these clashing worlds. Raised like a son by James Franco’s scientist character in “Rise of the Planet of Apes,” the chimp ultimately finds himself drawn to a growing army of apes. “Caesar is home,” the primate tenderly tells Franco’s Will Rodman, as they part in the woods at the end of the 2011 film.
Humans might not get much mercy this time around from Caesar, who, judging from the preview for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” has plenty more to say when people, well meaning and otherwise, intrude on the primate civilization he leads a decade later: “War has already begun,” he declares.
Check out the preview below with “Dawn” set to rise in theaters Friday:
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.