Ten years after the action of Rise of the Planet of the Apes we are re-introduced to a now older and wiser Caesar (Andy Serkis) who leads an ape community living in the forests above San Francisco. Theirs is a society that has evolved enough to teach its young language skills and moral code that abhors unnecessary violence.
The apes have not seen humans in “ten winters” and wonder if the plague (the ALZ-113 virus) might have wiped them out. They are shocked to encounter a small group, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) that includes a Ellie (Keri Russell) and the somewhat trigger-happy Carver (Kirk Acevedo).
The group had trekked in search of an abandoned hydro-electric station that was hoped to be a sustainable source of power for a small colony of human survivors in San Francisco, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).
The encounter awakens seething resentments on both sides, as memories of loss and pain are awakened. While Malcolm, Ellie and Dreyfus lost loved ones to Ape attacks the most striking memories are those of Caesar’s chief commander Koba (Toby Kebbell) who was a laboratory test subject and bears horrific scars (physical and emotional).
Caesar announces, in no uncertain terms that humans are not welcome in the hills where the apes live. But, when Malcolm comes, pleading the need of the humans for power, he relents, despite the reservations of some in the ape camp.
This sets up the dramatic arc of the film, where the limits of ape and human co-habitation (and co-operation) are tested, leading inevitably to violence. And, while the film is weighed down at times by some rather trite and predictable dialogue from the humans, there is a surprising amount of emotional resonance to the parable of cultural mistrust and facing the alien in our midst.
In no small part this is down to the extraordinary performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar. While the “human actors,” Oldman, Clarke, Russell and Acevedo are fine with what they are given, Serkis shines, bringing a full range of emotions, from brutal rage, to tender vulnerability to Caesar.
This is, in many ways, a surprising film that really feels like a proper second act to this, new Planet of the Apes concept. We are, of course, speaking in terms of summer blockbusters here, but as far as popcorn-fare goes, this a thoroughly worthwhile experience, especially for every moment we see Serkis as Caesar on the screen.