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In 'Planet Of The Apes,' Caesar Embodies A Flawed But Fearless Leader

Jul 14, 2017
Originally published on July 14, 2017 6:00 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The third and final movie in the "Planet Of The Apes" trilogy opens today. In this retelling of the original movies, the apes are in an epic battle for their survival.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES")

ANDY SERKIS: (As Caesar) Are there more like you, more apes from zoo.

STEVE ZAHN: (As Bad Ape) Dead, all dead long time - human...

MCEVERS: Andy Serkis plays the apes' noble leader, Caesar, in all three movies. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports that Caesar is both a mythic character and a physically demanding role.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Don't let the CGI fool you. The apes in these movies are played by real actors, except that during filming, instead of costumes and makeup, they're wearing lycra suits with dots marking their bodies and faces. It's called motion capture, and it's an Andy Serkis specialty.

SERKIS: Each marker is placed specifically to pick up the movement on a group of muscles on your face. They track your eyeballs through deformation of the eyelids. And it allows the artists, the CG artists, to honor exactly what the performance is on the day that you've given.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES")

SERKIS: (As Caesar) Leave us the woods, and the killing can stop.

BLAIR: Andy Serkis transformed himself to emulate the posture, the gait, the vocals of an ape who runs, climbs, fights, rides horseback. In "War For The Planet Of The Apes," Caesar is captured and chained by humans trying to kill off his species. He's dragged in front of the humans' colonel, played by Woody Harrelson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES")

WOODY HARRELSON: (As The Colonel) Have you finally come to save your apes?

SERKIS: (As Caesar) I came for you.

BLAIR: Serkis says playing the noble Caesar was rewarding and exhausting.

SERKIS: Caesar takes a lot of battering in this movie. He suffers at the hands of the humans once he gets enslaved. And you're pretty much battered and bruised by the end of a day's filming.

BLAIR: The "Planet Of The Apes" movies are big action blockbusters, but they're also parables of war, power, the environment. And through it all, Caesar is a reflection of what it would mean to be both human and ape. In the story, Caesar was born in a biomedical research lab in California.

SERKIS: His mother was an ape that was being experimented on for an Alzheimer's cure drug. And there's an accident in the facility, and she breaks free and is shot. And so Caesar is an orphan.

BLAIR: An orphan who's taken in by one of the scientists and raised like a human. The drug his late mother was given passed to him in utero. And while it's a drug that eventually kills humans, it makes apes more intelligent.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES")

JAMES FRANCO: (As Will Rodman) By age 2, Caesar was completing puzzles and models designed for children 8 years and up.

BLAIR: But eventually Caesar is forced to live in a primate shelter, and it's a pivotal moment for the character. Like the other apes, he's confined to a cage and a small play area and suffers abuse from one of the keepers. He's enraged at the treatment and uses his smarts to organize an escape.

SERKIS: It gives him this unique position whereby he can galvanize all of these apes that are being treated fairly cruelly. And he ends up becoming this revolutionary leader and leading them to freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES")

BLAIR: It's an epic revenge story - apes who've been imprisoned, battered, poked and prodded in labs escape to the woods, free to climb, roam and create their own community. But they remain at war with humans. And here's where Caesar's strength as a leader emerges. He's an ape who was raised by humans. He empathizes with both species.

SERKIS: As long as the apes and the humans live separately, they can co-exist.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES")

SERKIS: (As Caesar) Apes do not want war but will fight if we must.

BLAIR: "Planet Of The Apes" director Matt Reeves says Caesar is an example of moral leadership.

MATT REEVES: In wartime, the extremes of the conflicts can drive us to regard your adversary as different from you and as monstrous. And his greatest strength really is his empathy.

BLAIR: Still, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. In the new movie, Caesar's moral core is tested. But unlike so many of Shakespeare's powerful characters, Caesar is not corrupt or treasonous. He just wants to find a peaceful solution to protect his species.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JANE GOODALL: I found Caesar a character that haunted me.

BLAIR: Primatologist Jane Goodall was interviewed by 20th Century Fox to promote the new movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOODALL: It certainly made me think about how many humans behave in a much less humane way than the character of Caesar in the "Planet Of The Apes."

BLAIR: Goodall hopes the movies will make people think about our own humanity in relation to the animal kingdom. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOMESHAKE SONG, "KHMLWUGH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.