The motion-capture technology is really astounding, especially in 3-D. However, there are many genteel moviegoers who will not go see either sci-fi or anything violent, much less apocalyptic fantasy, so these will need a more extensive introduction.
Sometime in the very near future, there’s a breakthrough in ape research, as a lab in California has figured out how to enhance their intelligence and communication skills. Unfortunately, accompanying the new technology seems to be a dreadful new plague called “simian flu,” which sweeps the globe at such a rapid pace that civilization as we know it completely breaks down as the earth’s entire population is nearly wiped out. They never did find a cure. There were only isolated pockets of individuals who did not seem to be affected (such as in the rubble of what used to be San Francisco) but these meek ones inherit an earth that is literally only a ruined wreckage of what they knew before.
Meanwhile, the ape population, now set free in the suddenly-abundant open spaces outside the city, builds up a colony with a very distinct hierarchy. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is unquestionably the alpha male, and he must occasionally demonstrate his physical prowess to the other males in order to maintain his absolute authority. But he is also intelligent enough to rule with thoughtfulness and compassion and to demonstrate “family values” to the other apes. He genuinely loves his “wife” and “kids,” and takes his older son on hunting trips to teach him the ways of surviving in the wild. Caesar also remembers with fondness his early years, when he was raised and trained by humans, so when the apes encounter a human colony he is not afraid of them. In fact, he tries to help them, once they get over their astonishment that he can actually speak to them (though most of the time he uses sign language with the other apes).
In particular, Caesar befriends Malcolm (Jason Clarke), an engineer who’s attempting to get the broken dam up and running again to provide electricity to the humans who are rapidly running out of fuel. The apes are actually surprised that there are any humans remaining because they haven’t even seen any in a couple of years and it’s been 10 years since the great cataclysm that toppled them from their reign over the earth. Malcolm’s wife Ellie (Keri Russell) even helps Caesar’s wife with a postpartum infection (fast-acting antibiotics?), so a new era of cooperation between the two societies is on the horizon.
This is where the movie becomes intriguingly complicated. It seems that there are those in the human community who do not trust the apes and don’t want any détente, just as there are those in the ape community who don’t trust the humans and would just as soon wipe them out as try to co-exist peacefully. Both Malcolm and Caesar do their very best to enlist the support of their respective rival factions, but alas, the renegade elements prove to be too powerful. It’s just plain easier to declare war than it is to try to maintain an uneasy peace. And that, of course, is the great metaphor for our times. Order gives way to chaos. Diplomacy is trumped by mistrust. Reconciliation is overruled by revenge.
In the end, the apes and humans display little difference in their natures: both struggle to not succumb to their baser instincts, which is easier than trying to rise above their natures. Those of us in the business of pleading religion will recognize the context.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.