Warning: this article contains massive War for the Planet of the Apes spoilers. Stop reading here if you have not seen the film or don’t want to know.
We’re going to stick a photo here just to provide a further buffer:
It’s so refreshing to watch a movie franchise that has a definitive ending. As much as we love the ongoing Marvel saga, which is built specifically to run the way it does, too many movies these days act simply as commercials for the next installment and tell incomplete stories as a result. But that’s never been a problem for the modern reboot of Planet of the Apes. Each film — Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and the new War for the Planet of the Apes — has told a complete story in itself while hinting that the tale goes on (which is what most great storytelling does, and which is different from merely setting up the next sequel).
In the case of War for the Planet of the Apes, the movie not only spins its own, mostly self-contained tale, but it brings the saga of Caesar, the chimp with virally enhanced intelligence and who evolves from experimental lab animal to leader of a new simian civilization, to a clear and emotionally powerful close. After leading his fellow apes out of captivity in Rise and planting the seeds of their own civilization while attempting to peacefully co-exist with what’s left of humanity in Dawn, Caesar finally guides his people toward freedom along a treacherous path of vengeance and bloodshed in War. Now at last the primate Moses, who’s been played brilliantly every step of the way by Andy Serkis, is overcome by his wounds and dies quietly at the end of War, somberly seeing his tribe arrive at their promised land but never entering it himself.
While a bit less tightly scripted than its two predecessors, War manages to pay homage to both the Apes franchise and classic Hollywood cinema overall. There are clear nods to films like Apocalypse Now, The Bridge on the River Kwai (also from a novel by Pierre Boulle, who wrote the book La Planete des Singes on which all this is based), and, in its final third, The Ten Commandments. The analogy of Caesar to Moses is a strong one, but while the cinematic Moses struggled with issues of faith, loyalty and identity, Caesar’s conflict is different: Can he overcome his inherited hatred of humans and thirst for vengeance to become a creature of peace? In the end, he realizes that it may not be possible and that the way forward for apes and humans to co-exist belongs to the next generation of both.
That conflict is similar to the one faced by the original Caesar, played by Roddy McDowall in 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes. After leading his people through a bloody revolution — that itself provides the spark for a human nuclear war — the Caesar of those films emerges from the ashes and works toward a society where apes and humans live together peaceably. His efforts seem destined to succeed for a time (per an epilogue to Battle that’s set 600 years later), but because Battle came out five years after we already glimpsed the distant and bleak future envisioned in the first Planet of the Apes, it’s strongly hinted that his efforts are eventually doomed.
Matt Reeves, director and co-writer of Dawn and War, has stated several times that the new series (if it were to continue) could eventually arrive at the devastated future of Planet of the Apes, where savage humans are treated like wild animals by a relatively small, agrarian ape society that lives in a forested area on the edge of a great, radioactive desert (that wasteland, of course, contains the ruins of New York City and a race of telepathic mutants descended from survivors of the nuclear war two millennia earlier).
It is into that future that an astronaut from the present, George Taylor (Charlton Heston), crashes in his ship the Icarus and becomes an existential threat to the apes. For he is living proof that an advanced human civilization preceded the simian one. Taylor ends up blowing this world to bits in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, disgusted with the dead end at which the future has left us.
Much was made in 2011 of the fact that Rise of the Planet of the Apes features a news report on the launch of the Icarus, although whether there is actually a Col. Taylor on board is left unclear. And while the new Apes films have laid the groundwork for an eventual look at the future that the Icarus presumably travels to, now Reeves says the series might not necessarily get there for a while… if at all. Reeves, who appears to want to stay involved with the franchise, after all told Fandango:
“Well for me, the idea of these stories is that they’re leading on a trajectory toward the originals. What I’m interested in, and what I’m excited about, is the journey toward them; because the story no longer is about what happens — we know what happens — it becomes Planet of the Apes.”
And one of the ideas never explored at all in the original movies is whether there are other ape or even human societies in other parts of the world; the apes, savage humans and mutants of Planet, Beneath, Conquest, and Battle live more or less in the wreckage of one former metropolitan area. It’s designated as New York in the first two films while the actual location of the latter two is left ambiguous, so it’s possible that the Caesar of the original series lived in a different area than his future ancestors Cornelius and Zira (that doesn’t explain how the mutants and the Alpha-Omega bomb may have migrated from one to the other, but if I think about it too long it makes my head hurt).
The rebooted modern Caesar and his people at first reside in a forest outside San Francisco, then are forced north by the crazed Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson) and his army, and presumably head south again to reach the lakeside oasis that they settle on as their home (it could be anywhere in the Western United States from the looks of it). Along the journey they meet Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a critical character because he is the first simian they’ve met outside their own tribe who has acquired the power of speech.
As Reeves told Fandango: “When [co-writer] Mark [Bomback] and I came up with the idea for Bad Ape in War, that was to imply the idea that there would be apes out there in the world that Caesar and his apes knew nothing of, and that they wouldn’t have had the benefit of Caesar’s leadership and the values that he had instilled in his community. Future conflicts in this kind of epic journey [may] take us toward the ’68 movie without necessarily ever getting there [and] could be about conflicts between apes, not just conflicts between humans and apes.”
There is the key to what the Apes franchise may look like going forward. Reeves, if he stays with the saga, is not necessarily interested in rushing into a remake of the original Planet of the Apes. If the timeline stays relatively the same, there’s some 2,000 years of future history to fill in before the Icarus lands in the sea near Ape City and the ruins of New York. Surely Caesar’s clan and their descendants will encounter many more adventures, challenges, and even calamities before that happens… if it ever does.
The apes are now the main characters of the franchise; this balance began to tilt in Dawn and they are now fully in control of the story. It only makes sense that the spread of the virus which initially gave Caesar and his tribe their intelligence, and which decimated the human race, would find its way to other apes. And those apes may not have the benefit of Caesar’s wisdom and compassion, which will be hopefully carried forward in the wake of his death. What if his tribe encounters another simian clan led by an ape more like the vengeful Koba or the treacherous Winter (who betrays Caesar to the Colonel in War)? What if an ape tyrant emerges who wants to control all of simian civilization? It seems unreasonable to think that every ape will be heroic or interested in peace. Warring ape clans may end up fighting over territorial rights to now abandoned human cities or even advanced weapons.
Even though they are clearly not the dominant race anymore, let’s not forget the human factor either. With the virus mutating in War and beginning to turn humans into unthinking mutes, it seems evident that the plague is not done with Homo sapiens yet. In lieu of an all-out nuclear confrontation between large-scale nations — which seem to have already collapsed by the time Dawn started — could continuously mutating humans branch off into the two subspecies we met in the original films, feral beasts and telepathic sociopaths?
One riddle left unanswered at the end of War is the exact origin of the human army that comes to wipe out McCullough and his troops before an avalanche buries everyone. He says they’re from “the north” but little else. Are they from Canada? Are they another faction from what’s left of the United States? Is the virus mutating amongst their ranks too? (I actually thought for a moment that they would pull off their goggles and masks at the end of the movie and reveal themselves to be apes, which would have been an interesting twist, but their faces remain hidden.)
These are all questions which could be answered in films to come. There is so much unwritten history for Reeves and other filmmakers to investigate and play with, hopefully with the same level of narrative intelligence, thematic resonance, and emotional investment that the now-concluding trilogy so elegantly produced in these last six years. Caesar’s story is over; but as with all epic sagas — of which there is no doubt that the Apes series is now one of the finest of its kind — there are many more tales that can be told.
War for the Planet of the Apes opens in theaters Friday, July 14.