'War For the Planet of the Apes' Writer Explains Why Young Nova Is the Key to Everything
Early in War For the Planet of the Apes, the third film in Fox’s rebooted franchise, the film’s protagonist Caesar (Andy Serkis) encounters a young, female child. The girl, played by newcomer Amiah Miller, is one of the only human characters in the story, as well as one of the only girls. She’s a counterpoint to a conflict that pits apes against humans in a winner-take-all war. Like in Logan or Nice Guys, she brings humanity to its male characters, providing an opportunity to see internal kindness rather than unemotional brutality. It’s a trope that extends back to The Professional. In War For the Planet of the Apes Miller’s part intentionally helps Caesar and his companions feel essential emotion after horrible losses befall their tribe.
"The challenge that Caesar faces in this story is that, for the first time ever, he’s finally lost empathy for the humans," explains screenwriter Mark Bomback, who co-wrote the film with director Matt Reeves. "He is the most human of the apes. He has a genuine love in his heart for humans and a genuine belief that coexistence is something within reach. But early on in this film he arrives at a place where he’s decided, ‘I have no use for humans any more.’ We needed a circumstance in which he’s encountering a human who is as much a victim of the circumstance of the film as the apes are. We wanted to see what happens when there’s a vulnerable person you have to care for when it’s the last thing you want to do. It’s really a flip – she winds up being the Caesar from the original story when you look at how he first evolves."
Miller’s character is named Nova, a throwback to the original 1968 Planet of the Apes. In that movie, actress Linda Melson Harrison played a mute adult female who lives with the apes. This version is not necessarily the same woman; it’s meant as more of a gesture to the world’s origin. Nova came into play early-on during the writing process, which included a month where Bomback and Reeves watched tons of old movies for inspiration, including John Ford’s 1956 Western The Searchers.
"Matt was attached to the idea of The Searchers and a woman who was raised among Native Americans and the idea of whether she’s gone native or not," Bomback explains. "We knew we wanted someone young, out of their element, and that was the genesis of it. I don’t remember the exact moment in time when we said, ‘Wait, her name will be Nova!’ But we liked the idea of paying homage to the original film and having a character named Nova."
The script is a hybrid of several genres, including Westerns, war films and Biblical epics. The writers liked the idea of Caesar as this mythical, Moses-like figure who ascends from humble beginnings to become the center of ape lore. War For the Planet of the Apes is the culmination of his journey, which is decidedly emotional in its scope. He is tasked with saving his species, but he also deals with great personal tragedy and has to find his own sense of humanity again. In that way, it’s similar to Logan where a gruff protagonist needs the feeling of being a parent to reveal his empathy.
"There’s something very primal and human about being a parent or taking care of a child," Bomback notes. "With all these blockbuster movies I think the ones that are succeeding are the ones that are the most focused on playing into the realism of the situation and on playing into the humanity of the characters. Grounding them with as much emotion as possible without them feeling forced."
The end of the film, which we won’t spoil here, leaves the door open for a variety of possible sequels. The studio hasn’t announced where the franchise will go next, but Bomback sees a lot of opportunities for more story, which presumably could include Nova. "I’m sure there’s a lot more story to mine out of the world of these films," he notes. "It’s a very exciting thing to think about because you can go in any number of directions, including how far into the future you’d like to go next."
As for that ending (which will linger with you emotionally for days to come)... "We had made some early-on decisions about where it would end," Bomback says. "We felt confident that that’s where it should end."