'War for the Planet of the Apes' director Matt Reeves on that emotional ending — and where the story goes now

WARNING: Major spoilers about “War for the Planet of the Apes” ahead. Seriously, DO NOT READ THIS until you’ve seen the movie, or you’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

In the run-up to last week’s release of “War for the Planet of the Apes,” trailers and billboards promised an epic climax to the sci-fi-action series with the foreboding but rather cryptic tagline: “Witness the End.”

The end of what, though?

Some loyal fans of the franchise had an inkling of where things might be heading — and took to social media in advance of the movie’s release to express their fears.

“I swear to god if Caesar dies in Planet of the Apes tomorrow ima legit be in mourning,” one fan wrote on Twitter. “If/when Caesar dies in this new Apes movie, I will cry legitimate tears,” another fan posted, and another said she was “not emotionally strong enough” to handle such a possibility.

Well, someone should probably check in on those folks today to make sure they’re OK.

In any ongoing film franchise, the death of a central character is never a thing to be taken lightly — which is why it so rarely happens. But for “Apes” director and co-writer Matt Reeves, the decision to bring the story of the ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) to an end in the film’s emotional final moments did not involve any agonizing or second-guessing. It simply felt natural and inevitable.

“The idea of reaching the end of the journey was there right from the beginning, to be honest with you,” Reeves told The Times last month in an interview at his office on the 20th Century Fox lot. “There was an opportunity there to fulfill his character in a way that just having an ongoing Caesar story in another movie wouldn’t allow you to do.”

For Reeves, the ending of the new film offers a suitably mythic conclusion to what he considers “the Caesar cycle” of three films — 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and now “War” — that have charted the noble ape leader’s journey from infancy through both inner and outer conflict to a kind of final peace.

In Reeves’ mind, the character’s death was almost biblically preordained. “He was sort of this ape Moses, so for him not to be able to be in the Promised Land with them — I thought reaching this place could be tremendously emotional,” he said.

Indeed, for Reeves — who directed both “War,” which he co-wrote with Mark Bomback, and “Dawn,” which was scripted by Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver— at its heart the “Apes” franchise has always been more about empathy and feeling than about noise and spectacle. “One of the things I’ve found really gratifying in seeing people’s response to the movie is that they say ... they never expected that these movies would be so emotional,” he said. “That’s the whole goal of what we’re doing: to try to create emotional identification with these characters.”

The studio executives at Fox wholeheartedly backed the decision, Reeves said — but that’s not to say there were not occasional moments of trepidation along the way.

“I think there was a little bit of fear now and then,” he said. “There would be certain moments going, ‘Are we really going to do this?’ And I understand it because you sit there and go, ‘Wow, this character is so special. The way he’s part-human and part-ape, and the way that Andy plays him — it’s remarkable.’”

From a creative standpoint, Serkis completely understood the choice to bring Caesar’s story to an end. “It feels absolutely right, sad though I am,” said the actor, whose performance-capture work as Caesar has earned widespread acclaim. “It’s been an extraordinary journey playing a character all the way through his life, which is a rare thing for an actor to do. It’s been an amazing exploration.”

Given how that exploration unfolded, the fact that Caesar’s final exit was handled with a moment of quiet grace rather than, say, a blaze of bullets seemed particularly fitting to Serkis. “The underplaying of that — rather than going out in the classic trilogy-ending blockbuster battle move — I think that is really cool,” he said.

Judging by the box office receipts and critical raves, there’s little question that the series will continue forward after “War for the Planet of the Apes.” But with the conclusion to this Caesar-centric trilogy, the question becomes: Where does the story go from here?

At this point, Reeves sees all kinds of possibilities — both with existing characters like Caesar’s son, Cornelius, his gentle orangutan friend, Maurice, and his chimpanzee lieutenant, Rocket, as well as with characters yet to come.

In a general sense, the rebooted franchise is clearly charting a gradual course toward where 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” began — with the apes having achieved ultimate dominion over Earth. It is called “Planet of the Apes,” after all. But at the same time, as Reeves points out, this version of the “Apes” timeline diverged from that preexisting one from the outset, freeing it to move in new directions.

In Pierre Boulle’s original 1963 novel and the ’68 Charlton Heston movie, ape intelligence was the product of evolution, but in the new films it is the result of a virus. With that fresh jumping-off point, the franchise in its current iteration is not bound to end up in precisely the same place as the original series.

“It’s not a literal bridge — it’s more like they exist in the same universe so they speak to each other,” Reeves said. “These films are no longer in any way beholden to the originals but they relate and they vibrate. There’s so much opportunity because none of these stories have been written — and yet it’s as if we have all of this source material. So it’s really exciting in that way.”

For his part, Serkis says he is eager to move forward with the series in new ways, whether by playing a different ape or a human character — or perhaps moving behind the camera. (In the near term, Reeves will be busy writing and directing the planned solo Batman film.)

“The possibility of playing other characters has been discussed, and directing — there’s a possibility there too,” said Serkis. “If the opportunity came again, I would love to work with Matt on it, because we’re both passionate about this world and about the potential for the storytelling.”

Wherever the franchise goes from here, Reeves believes it will continue to adhere to the fundamentals of theme, emotion and character that have carried it to this place.

“The thing I find most exciting is that, because the ‘Planet of the Apes’ concept has already been asserted by the original, there’s no suspense about what will happen — there’s suspense about how it will happen,” Reeves said. “And those kinds of stories are character stories.

“These stories are so much about our nature. The idea of these movies being a way to look at ourselves and how we’re drawn to violence and the difficulty of our resisting our darker impulses and the struggle for empathy — that’s a pretty cool area to be exploring in a summer film.”

josh.rottenberg@latimes.com

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

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