Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) wants nothing more than to propose to his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) and make her happy. Although his heart's in the right place, the dimwitted stoner at the center of American Ultra can't seem to do much of anything right. Mike, who's later revealed to be a sleeper agent created by the CIA, can't even leave his small-town home for vacation without suffering crippling panic attacks. Seemingly helpless without Phoebe, the self-proclaimed fuck-up works at a seedy convenience store, where he doodles to pass the time. But for however uninspired Mike may appear to be, it turns out he's actually got an active imagination, dreaming up a delightful comic book character named Apollo Ape.
Apollo Ape is a space-traveling chimpanzee with a sidekick named Chip the Brick. Together, the unlikely pair may or may not be hunting down a treacherous character named Spicy Tomato. Scant details about Apollo's motivations are provided as Mike babbles on about his story ideas to Phoebe, who urges him to write them down. Since Apollo Ape plays such a small role in American Ultra, viewers never get his origin story. Who is Apollo Ape? Is he a NASA test chimp and a byproduct of Mike's repressed memories as a CIA hitman?
"The way it was described to me was that those were the characters ... in the back of [Mike's] mind," explained 37-year-old John Martel, the artist behind Apollo Ape. "He had stories in his mind that he wanted to tell ... he was just too much of a slacker to ever get started," the self-taught artist from Lake Charles, Louisiana told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview.
When Martel was initially offered a chance to create the artwork for American Ultra — the first movie he has ever worked on — he had no idea what the project was. It wasn't until he googled Richard Bridgland, the film's production designer, that Martel realized just how big the film would be. "I was like, Oh shit. This isn't going to be like a student film," he said. It became his job to conceptualize Mike's comic book creations.
"They didn't really have a clear vision of exactly what they wanted," Martel said. "So the very first version was more like a capuchin monkey." It even had rings around his ankles and a bubble for a helmet. But Bridgland and Martel had to scratch the idea of "Rocket Monkey" upon realizing that original name had already been trademarked. Over the course of a few weeks, the monkey evolved into an ape. "We did a bunch of designs of the chimpanzee, making him a little bigger, making the spacesuit less '50s and more like an astronaut suit."
It was a meticulous progress that took weeks of back-and-forth exchanges with Bridgland. "I couldn't tell you how many times I drew [Apollo Ape's] head." After Martel combined elements of his many preliminary sketches, Apollo Ape was born, eventually making it onto a promotional poster for the movie. That piece was done by underground artist Jim Evans, better known as T.A.Z.
Though Apollo Ape's onscreen time was brief, the astronaut ape proved to be one of the most memorable characters from the film. In fact, the closing sequence is a vibrant animated sequence of Apollo Ape from Gary Lieb, American Ultra's animation director, that suggests this might not be the last time viewers see Apollo Ape. Here's hoping Mike starts writing down those kooky plot lines.
GIFs put together from storyboard chunks of the animation sequence by Gary Leib