20th Century Fox recently previewed its upcoming genre slate with a special filmmakers' showcase in New York City featuring, among others, War for the Planet of the Apes.

Director Matt Reeves was on hand to present three in-progress clips, and even in its unfinished state, the footage is absolutely riveting.

Obviously, there are minor spoilers below:

The first clip is an early battle in the film, which takes place two years into the titular war that started at the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In it, humans mount a sneak attack on an ape outpost deep in the forest, but quickly find the tables turned to the apes’ advantage. The action is chaotic and brutal, shot like a traditional war film, not a video game. Interestingly, the human soldiers work with subordinate ape “mules” carrying gear and supplies. Caesar, now battle-worn and extremely displeased at the violence brought to him by the humans, returns to the aftermath and surveys the carnage. The clip ends on a tense moment, as Caesar and his lieutenants confront a captive human soldier.

In the second clip, Caesar and company discover a human soldier that they believe to be a deserter. Caught by surprise, the human makes the unwise choice of going for his gun and Caesar dispatches him remorselessly. They search an abandoned structure and find a scared young girl, unable to talk. Caesar wants to leave her, but the sympathetic orangutan Maurice convinces him to take her along.

The third clip was the most impressive, and introduces us to a new character called Bad Ape, brought to life by an unbelievable performance by Steve Zahn. I won’t say much more about this scene, because honestly, it was such a surprise and so poignant, that it would be a disservice to those experiencing it for the first time.

Steve Zahn talked about tackling the role, and the technical component to it:

“When I started this, I really thought it would be challenging for different reasons. I thought that the things that were gonna obstruct kind of the way I worked were technical things, and that I was going to have to adapt the way I worked to this big mo-cap—whatever that means—world. And what I realized, and it was frightening, was that the challenges were the same challenges I had doing experimental theater in Boston. It had nothing to do with the technical. And that scared me. Because I had to really work, and I had to be good. And I was thrown into a world of people that this was their world. And then, you know, you saw that set. I mean, that was a set. That wasn't painted on. I think there's this idea that that stuff is added. That set was that set, and when I saw that for the first time, I was petrified.”

Something must be said about Andy Serkis, the mo-cap performers, and Weta, all of whom, over the course of now three Apes films together, have elevated their crafts above and beyond mere “special effects.” The work done on Bad Ape was particularly astounding. This is art, in and of itself. Matt Reeves explains:

“Every single one of these scenes is shot on location with our actors, is driven by the actors' performances, and then we render them as apes.

...In every single one of those shots, we have the camera angle that I choose, and we set up that angle. But, in addition to that, so that the emotion is as faithful as possible, there are a million video cameras set up everywhere. Everywhere that Weta can hide them. And, in fact, in some of these shots, the cameras are actually there, and they will paint them out, just so that they can get good information. And, so, they have a bunch of artists whose job it is to train those cameras on each of the performers.

...Probably the thing that we have pushed in the last two films is the conditions under which the mo-cap is used. So, whereas in Rise, the movie was shot primarily on stage—they shot some location but it was primarily on stage—in Dawn, we wanted to push them into the woods. And I wanted it to be as photo-real as possible. I was like, "Can we shoot, actually, in the woods? Can we shoot in the rain?" And Weta proved to me in Dawn, they could. So I was like, "Let's do it in the snow," and they were like, "Okay."

In the trailer, which you can see below, we get our first look at Woody Harrelson as the Colonel fighting to save humanity. Matt Reeves elaborates:

“The Colonel is a hardened special forces, special Ops guy. He's what's left of the human army, but they are truly hardened, because they are the best of the best, the ones who've survived. And the thing that's so chilling about his character, because he's very extreme, but the situation for the humans is really extreme.

And so one of the things that is true about him is that Woody, when you find out why he's doing all of the things that he's doing, and it's extreme, you realize that he has justification for everything. And in fact, he doesn't lie ever in the film. And all of the things he says, we know—there is a moment where he talks about "if the humans lose, it will become a planet of apes."

And the great thing is that in the ’68 movie, the fact that that exists for us, we know that what he's saying is true. He's absolutely right, and you start—y'know, in the way that great war movies are all about human nature, we tried to make this about human nature, in that he's extreme, but what will you do to survive?”

Harrelson has had great success in playing hardcase characters like this before (see Into the Furnace), and from the looks of the trailer alone, he could be headed towards a career high, mirroring the recent trajectory of his True Detective co-star, Matthew McConaughey.

As a fan of the entire series, I feel that what Matt Reeves has done and continues to do with the Apes films raises the bar for tentpole movies, arguably more than any other filmmaker today. This is genre filmmaking at its finest... intelligent, thoughtful, shocking, and above all, entertaining.

War for the Planet of the Apes opens July 14th, 2017:

Synopsis: “In War for the Planet of the Apes, the third chapter of the critically acclaimed blockbuster franchise, Caesar and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel. After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.


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