'War for the Planet of the Apes' New York Comic Con Preview: Caesar Finds His Heart of Darkness

Andy Serkis as Caesar in 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' (Photo: Everett)
Andy Serkis as Caesar in ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (Photo: Everett)

After the dawn comes the war. At least, that’s how things are unfolding on the rebooted Planet of the Apes, where the weary ape-king Caesar is entering what might be his final battle. The third installment of the new Apes series — which commenced in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continued in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes War for the Planet of the Apes arrives in theaters next July, and it promises to be an epic trilogy-capper. “This movie has a huge scale; it’s so much bigger than the other films,” returning director Matt Reeves giddily told the monkey-loving crowd at a special event held at a Manhattan multiplex on the first night of New York Comic Con.

To properly prepare for the size and scope of the climactic battle between apekind and humankind that’s been teased since Rise, Reeves — who says he only took four weeks off between wrapping Dawn and jumping into preproduction on War — spent several days in a cinema bunker, screening some of the all-time great war movies. You name it, he watched it: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Platoon, The Thin Red Line, and Apocalypse Now. The latter film is particularly appropriate, as the story line for War for the Planet of the Apes sends Caesar on his own journey into the heart of darkness. Flanked by producer Dylan Clark and actor Andy Serkis, who once again brings Caesar to life through the power of performance and the magic of motion capture, Reeves set the stage for the battle to come.

Watch the 30-second War teaser:

War for the Planet of the Apes opens two years after the events of Dawn, when Ceasar violated his society’s rule against ape-on-ape violence by killing his duplicitous lieutenant, Koba (Toby Kebbell), who spoiled a tentative détente between the remaining humans and the ascendant ape population. After working so hard to avoid a prolonged fight, the reluctant general now finds himself deeply immersed in a guerrilla war without end, with his side amassing heavy casualties. So he makes a bold, potentially fatal decision: to break rank from his troops and head off into the wilderness in search of the colonel leading the ragtag human army, played by Woody Harrelson sporting a Kurtz-like chrome dome.

Dawn was very much about how Caesar was forced to kill his brother in Koba,” Reeves said. “In War, he’s haunted by Koba and what he had to do. The mythic journey of the story is that Caesar comes to understand exactly why Koba felt the way he did, because he gets pushed to the extremes of war to a place that’s similar. The question is, will he be able to transcend the darkness inside of him the way Koba was not?” For his part, Serkis described Caesar’s journey in War as being “the most challenging, psychologically intense and emotionally draining part of his arc. Caesar is an empathetic character, but where we take him in this movie, he loses that.”

Andy Serkis in his mo-cap get-up for 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' (Photo: Everett)
Andy Serkis in his mo-cap get-up for ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ (Photo: Everett)

With that preamble out of the way, the trio introduced a seven-minute clip from War for the Planet of the Apes, repeatedly cautioning the audience that the effects work was far from done. And while the sequence did regularly switch back from rough mo-cap animation to yet-to-be-animated images of Serkis and his co-stars, the drama of the moment still came across. The scene picks up with Caesar and a small, but intensely loyal band of followers on their mission to find and kill Harrelson’s colonel. Entering the remains of a human settlement on horseback, they find a lone man carrying wood. He puts the logs down and moves to pick up a gun, but Caesar’s trigger finger takes him out first.

Exploring the camp, and gathering supplies for the journey ahead, they discover what the man was willing to die to protect: a young girl that seems barely capable of speech. Caesar is prepared to leave her there, but his orangutan comrade, Maurice (played once again by Karin Knoval), stands his ground. “I can’t leave her,” he tells his general. Cut to their horses riding along a beach — one that immediately recalls the terrain where Charlton Heston discovered the head of a certain Lady Liberty in the 1968 film that birthed this enduring franchise — and the little girl is clinging tightly to Maurice.

For a war movie, this is an awfully quiet moment, and that’s one of the reasons Reeves wanted to play it for the NYCC crowd. “The true scene I wanted to show, we couldn’t show, because the spoiler is too great,” Reeves teased. “This is a giant war film, but it’s really the story of characters and the intimacy of the relationships playing against that giant backdrop. So we wanted to show this, because it’s this intimate little scene in the middle of this giant story.” And the director promised that the girl the apes recover in the village is part of the story going forward. “It becomes the most unlikely posse,” he said. “And that brings a level of humor and mythic surprise to the movie that hasn’t been in any of them.”

Caesar's got his gun in 'Dawn' (Photo: Everett)
Caesar’s got his gun in ‘Dawn’ (Photo: Everett)

Of course, Reeves couldn’t resist showing action-hungry audiences a bit of the titular war. The evening finished with the world premiere of the movie’s all-new teaser trailer; not the short one that was released online earlier today, but a roughly minute-long clip with lots of new battle footage, including plenty of glimpses of Harrelson. Unlike the movie itself, which Reeves pointedly said is told from Caesar’s point of view, this teaser gives Harrelson the chance to make his case against the apes. “This is our last stand,” he’s heard saying, as respective armies of humans and apes confront each other in rainy forests and snowy tundra. “And if we lose, it will be a planet of the apes.”

And Harrelson is going to do his best to make sure that Earth stays a planet of the humans. In an early scene, we see him pursuing Caesar through an underground cavern wearing camouflage face paint that makes him resemble both Marlon Brando’s Kurtz and Martin Sheen’s Willard. And the teaser ends with the ape general on his knees before Harrelson in the snow, with the colonel triumphant raising a gun over his foe’s head. Is this Caesar’s end, my friend? We’ll have to wait until next summer to find out.