From its very opening, the most striking thing about War for the Planet of the Apes is how uncompromising it is in its earnestness and brutality. Whereas most summer spectacles these days are beholden to universe-building and snappy intertextual banter, Matt Reeves’ War makes no bones about being anything less than its aspirations: a patient, deliberate, and occasionally devastating drama about an ape who is transitioning from the role of flesh-and-blood leader to mythic figure for a yet to be written Simian bible.
And, if nothing else, War for the Planet of the Apes does succeed in its task of turning Andy Serkis’ Caesar into a figure of immense gravitas. After three movies, the most profound of which had Reeves in the director’s chair, Serkis and the filmmakers are prepared to make no concessions for a human co-leading protagonist, nor worry about audience expectations for upbeat escapism. For like other demigod mythos, Caesar and his civilization of apes will spend an awful lot of time in the underworld—a realm of man that sees the eponymous conflict as a war of attrition. Thus for the Planet of the Apes to truly begin, Caesar must enter a manmade hell wherein the results can be quite dour… and divine.
If this is mere popcorn escapism, be prepared to choke on a few kernels during the more intense sequences.
The movie picks up about a year or so after the events of 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The war started by the ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) has fractionized and demoralized both sides. While Caesar rightfully executed Koba in a climax fraught with operatic emotion in Dawn, he is still haunted by visions of his old friend whom he is now starting to believe was right. No matter how much mercy he shows the humans, a fanatical and militaristic leader known simply as “the Colonel” (Woody Harrelson) stalks Caesar and his apes with a vengeance, eventually extracting heavy casualties on their culture.
Caesar knows his apes must abandon their forest home and seek a Promised Land, but he cannot let the Colonel continue to chase them. So with a band of loyal followers, including fan favorite orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar strikes out first across the Northwest coastline and then into the snowy Sierra Nevada. Along the way, he’ll find new companions, including a little feral human girl they’ll name Nova (Amiah Miller) and another ape who despite not being part of their community can strangely talk. Although, that does not mean Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) ever has much worth saying.
Eventually they will reach their destination—an outpost deep in the snow that has been transformed into a utilitarian nightmare. There, the Colonel leads a crazed army in what he views as a “Holy War” against the apes. At least the ones he doesn’t currently keep as slaves, building him a wall in a concentration camp setting.
In every meaning, War for the Planet of the Apes feels like a conclusion to a storyline that began in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This is not to say that the film will be the last of this franchise. We still have a long way to go until Chuck Heston (or his remake equivalent) shows up on a beach, and 20th Century Fox has a lucrative science fiction series that has never been stronger. Still the movie is clearly about endings, both in terms of trilogies and in the cycles of its themes. So it is that Caesar and the apes have gone from the subjugated to the regal; they’re a civilization ready to flourish if they can throw off the chains and yoke of an ancient dying one that’s prepared to chase them to the sea.
Despite this high-mindedness, War is admittedly a step down from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. While it is refreshing that the movie has dispensed with the need for a James Franco or Jason Clarke to hang around and steal screen time from the apes, the picture does not quite have the narrative and tonal clarity of Dawn, which was a slow motion tragedy about how things fall about between hostile communities, be they in the Middle East or in the ruins of a post-ape apocalyptic San Francisco.
But in spite of War’s slightly more muddled narrative—which includes a bit too much rushed exposition in the first act—the film is perhaps the most complex in its influences and world-building. The movie is frank about its vision of wars and militarism being derived from Francis Ford Coppola’s psychedelic pessimism in Apocalypse Now. Beyond seeing “Ape-ocalypse Now” scrawled on a wall by a human at one point, Harrelson’s villainous Colonel reads like an unholy love child born of Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col. Kilgore and Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz from that picture. Yet more satisfying are the other throwbacks.
For all the severe visions of stark ugliness in humanity’s last fortress, the movie is also evocative of more playful yet equally cynical war stories, like Bridge on the River Kwai, which was about another type of POW camp being tortured into submission to build a structure. War also conjures the excitement found in the surreptitious scheming of The Great Escape. Even Michael Giacchino gets in on the action with a decidedly old school musical score filled with backward-looking bouts of heroism and bravado.
It contrasts nicely with how grim the movie can be at times. Indeed, if there isn’t a thematic through-line as clear as the one in Dawn, it is because the Colonel and the last remnants of humanity which seek to demolish the apes represent the very worst of our species. Harrelson plays the Colonel as a self-righteous piece of warmongering masculinity gone mad, and his Holy War includes aforementioned allusions to slavery, torture, genocide, and then there’s that passion to build a wall to keep undesirables out… while making the apes physically pay for it. I have no idea if the last bit is an intentional admonition of today’s ugly politics, but if it wasn’t intended to be, it just makes the comparisons all the more damning.
However, as terrific as Harrelson is, this is truly Serkis’ movie, perhaps more so than even the previous two. Caesar begins the picture in a dark place and only goes to more morally ambiguous areas as the film progresses. Also at this point, noting the brilliance of the motion-capture performance is fairly perfunctory. No longer does it appear to be audiences watching an actor utilizing a new technology. More than any other mo-cap film to date, it is simply a captivating turn from a great actor in a film unconcerned with justifying anything.
Caesar’s story is also aided a great deal by the new characters whom audiences will likely warm to. Zahn offers needed comic relief, but young Ms. Miller will walk away with the movie for many as the mute child whose name has profound importance for fans of the original Planet of the Apes. Nova’s inclusion should be chilling since it indicates the only peaceful future for humanity is one of submission—where we become glorified pets. But in the context of the film, her relationship with the bitter and broken Caesar offers a better glimpse of goodness in our species than any army. That this movie makes that the preferable outcome underscores just how subversive the franchise has become.
Ultimately, War for the Planet of the Apes is a beautifully crafted piece of cinema with grand aims. It does not completely stick its landing, but it remains a moving capstone on the two films that preceded it, fading out with complete integrity. If this were the final Planet of the Apes movie, it would end on a high note. Yet for once, the knowledge that it won’t be the last is reassuring since this has become one of the richest storytelling playgrounds in modern blockbuster moviemaking.
War for the Planet of the Apes opens on July 14.