How the formation and destruction of families drives plot in the modern Apes trilogy.
In the modern Planet of the Apes trilogy, the characters—human and Ape alike—suffer tremendous familial losses at nearly every turn. The “lucky” few humans who survive the Simian Flu see their spouses, parents, and children wiped out by the devastating disease. The Apes, meanwhile, watch humans harm fellow Apes, either in the name of science in Rise or out of fear and a thirst for revenge in Dawn and War. Ultimately, loss of family is the driving force behind all major conflicts in the movies. On the flip side, the forging of new family bonds out of that loss is also an emblem of hope and possibility.
NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE
In Dawn and War, the surviving humans are haunted by their losses. In Dawn, Dreyfus, the leader of the small bands of humans, doesn’t explicitly talk about what motivates him, but he weeps looking over images of his deceased family on a tablet as soon as electricity is returned to the humans.
After Koba leads the attack on the humans, Dreyfus detonates a huge amount of explosives, desperate to do whatever it takes for the imagined greater good. “I’m saving the human race,” he says, but he kills himself and his men in the process—actions he may have reconsidered had his wife and sons been among the survivors.
In War, the ruthless Colonel pursues Ape society. Caesar discovers the Colonel killed his own son after he contracted a new version of the Simian Flu, which appeared to turn humans primitive and silent. In this case, the Colonel’s willful destruction of his own family sets off a chain reaction, leading him to killing Caesar’s family and finally culminating in the extinction of most of humankind.
Other humans, meanwhile, turn toward creating new families out of their losses. Malcolm and Ellie’s powerful partnership, even after losing their respective families due to Simian Flu, allows them to form an alliance with Apes to bring electricity back to the humans and ultimately win Caesar’s trust.
CAESAR STANDS ALONE
All the Apes lose family, be it blood relatives like the murder of Rocket’s son Ash, or the extended family of Ape society dying in battle. But Caesar suffers major losses throughout the films, from his mother, to his brother-in-arms Koba, to his wife, Cornelia, and son, Blue Eyes. It’s the latter loss that causes him to go alone after the Colonel, much in the same way humans came after him, leading to the imprisonment of Apes and death of his trusted friend Luca.
Koba’s betrayal forces Caesar to trust and seek help from humans. “Trusted Koba like brother,” Caesar says in their final confrontation, and Koba replies, “Caesar brother to human.” Koba sees it as a weakness, but it’s actually Caesar’s biggest strength, allowing him to emerge victorious and retake his place as the leader of Ape society.
Ape society is, after all, the largest family we see in the movies. It’s their bond that enables them to survive despite the odds, outsmarting humans even when outmatched by military weapons and technology. Ape society, too, was a family formed out of the loss of another. In Rise, Caesar’s adoptive father Will reveals the truth of his biological family, saying “Your mother was here with other chimpanzees, but she’s not here anymore.” It’s the first instance of Caesar’s bond with Will deteriorating. Though Will doesn’t die in Rise, Caesar grieves the loss of his human family after being abandoned in the primate sanctuary and puts his energy into creating a new one.
As human leaders see their families torn apart, their desire for revenge ends in self destruction. But Caesar, for the most part, seeks out and creates new families in the wake of every loss. With every undoing, he is able to see himself in the Apes of the primate shelter, in Malcolm and Ellie, in the orphaned Nova, even in the Colonel.
When humans and Apes alike are driven to anger or revenge in their grief, it perpetuates the cycle of violence. It’s only when humans or Apes redirect their energy toward creating new families that peace becomes possible. These makeshift families, sometimes with no blood relation, sometimes built across species, signal hope for the future. In every instance, when humans and Apes see each other as alike, maybe even intrinsically and inextricably connected as family—or something like it—they survive.