Et tu, Brute? Andy Serkis as the ape-leader Ceasar.
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Monkey business: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is smart, ravishing and bleak

The latest addition to the Planet of the Apes franchise is the toughest yet - the transition from playful ape and human interaction to bloody horror comes across as scarily plausible.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (12A)
dir: Matt Reeves

Caesar, Ash, Rocket, Blue Eyes. No, not the members of a new boy band but the hirsute protagonists of the latest instalment in a franchise that is both long-running and long of title. After previous outings such as Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Slightly to the Left of the Planet of the Apes, we now have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Beginning with the eradication of mankind by the simian flu that spread at the end of the last film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the new picture is the bleakest in a series that was never exactly all-singing, all-dancing.

It is also smart and visually ravishing – at times even Constable-esque in its moist, verdant landscapes – without ever stinting on thrills. The only audiences likely to be disappointed are those expecting a dumbing-down or a lightening-up. Let’s put it this way: if the series ever spawns a movie entitled Light at the End of the Tunnel of the Planet of the Apes, I’m a monkey’s uncle.

One of the surprises of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which rebooted the series and felt like the documentary Project Nim remade as an action blockbuster, was the moment halfway through when the laboratory apes began to communicate among themselves in sign language, subtitled for our benefit. It was odd to eavesdrop on what the animals thought about their human captors – about us.

This time, it’s a different world. The apes dwell in sophisticated forest encampments and talk of humans much as we might now mention Woolworths, mockingly but with a tinge of nostalgia. The merest shrug between apes translates into many subtitled sentences; they converse so economically, it’s like being in the company of several hundred Robert Mitchums. But they have also increased their spoken vocabulary and can say “family”, “future”, “home” and other rudimentary nouns. Never mind monkeys, typewriters and the collected works of Shakespeare: this lot is already capable of turning out a Tony Parsons novel.

Caesar remains the charismatic, even-tempered leader, cognisant (unlike many of his fellow apes) of the good that humans can do, as well as the ill. He is played by the British actor Andy Serkis, the undisputed king of motion-capture performance, for which an actor wears a skin-tight, blue suit studded with lights (imagine a raver on the late-1980s acid house scene), enabling whatever he or she does to be translated by computer into an animated performance. The technology is so advanced that we can no longer see on-screen where the actors end and the apes begin.

Serkis (a former Mike Leigh regular whose motion-capture career began when he was cast as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films) nabs the most brooding close-ups. He gives Caesar a trademark incredulous stare that gets a big laugh. Head bowed and eyes raised, he seems to be saying, “You’re shitting me, right?” And his pathos is bottomless. The film ends with his soulful peepers staring out at us, imploring and accusing.

When the apes discover a settlement of humans not far from the forest, they are torn between those represented by Caesar, who want to help the stragglers, and those led by Koba (Toby Kebbell), who makes Stalin look as cute as a PG Tips chimp. The rest of the film explores these tensions with admirable thoroughness. Arguments are lucid on both sides, actions intelligible. Everything will be going fine and then a human will jeopardise it by doing something rash. Or else the humans will be playing ball when Koba or his allies will lash out. One scene showing apes mingling with humans is terrifying in the suddenness with which it tips from tomfoolery to horror – and highly plausible.

Can the apes and the humans ever co­exist peacefully? Don’t bet on it – the franchise would be over if they did. Sometimes, though, the unlikely happens. Caesar finds a dusty camcorder, unused for decades, which bleeps magically into life at first try. Then there’s that defunct movie series about a world overrun by apes, the subject of a dreadful salvage attempt in 2001 by Tim Burton, which has now delivered a pair of cerebral and suspenseful action thrillers. Anything’s possible.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt