The reboot/prequel Planet of the Apes series got off to a surprisingly good start with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and hasn’t really let up with its two direct sequels. Caesar’s journey from lab resident to leader of the apes now on the verge of having Earth to themselves has been a deeply personal one despite its massive scale, largely thanks to Andy Serkis’ tremendous performances and scripts from Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Mark Bomback, and director Matt Reeves.
The films have become one of the best trilogies in modern cinema, and War is an excellent ‘conclusion’ to it—though it may not really be the end of this stretch of Planet of the Apes stories.
War for the Planet of the Apes begins with an assault by humans and their donkeys—apes who have betrayed their kind for self-preservation—on the edges of the ape civilization. Things don’t exactly work out well for them, and Caesar (Andy Serkis) makes the decision that shapes the rest of the story—he allows the surviving attackers to return to their base and the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) to show this war between them doesn’t have to continue.
The Colonel disagrees, of course, and leads another attack on the already weakened apes almost immediately. This attack hits harder than the first, and it sends Caesar on his quest for revenge rather than fleeing for a new home with the rest of his clan. He’s not allowed to go alone, of course, as three of this closest allies make it known that they’ll be coming with him wherever he goes: advisor and voice of reason Maurice (Karin Konoval), close friend Rocket (Terry Notary), and warrior Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). Together, they set off in search of the Colonel and his forces.
The group doesn’t really go alone, of course, as they’re joined early on by a mute human girl (Amiah Miller) who finds herself taken in as one of their own and possibly the best supporting character in the entire series, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). Miller’s Nova provides a constant reminder of Caesar’s connection to the human world and his, for lack of a better word, humanity—even as he starts to lose sight of them among his desire to get to and kill the Colonel. Bad Ape provides some much needed comic relief, though he’s a much more essential character than that description implies. The group, now larger, soon sees their mission shift from revenge to rescue, but Caesar’s need for revenge remains prominent throughout.
War is simultaneously the biggest film and most personal of the three latest in the Planet of the Apes series. Yes, the fate of nearly all of the super-intelligent apes is on the line, but this is as much about Caesar as an individual as it is about the species—both in terms of the writing and the story itself. Caesar puts his desire for revenge above his responsibilities as leader to disastrous effect for everyone involved, which makes his journey, both internal and external, much more important. He’s blinded by his hate for people, or in his case an individual person, much like his previous foil Koba (Toby Kebbell). He’s called out for it multiple times throughout the film, and for good reason.
Caesar’s consistently blinded by his desire for revenge, a thirst that goes unquenched despite personal struggles, enslavement of Caesar’s entire tribe, and a barely masked exposition dump dialogue scene with the Colonel. That exposition dump somehow doesn’t dampen the experience of the film, though.
Its information shapes the rest of the interactions between Caesar and the Colonel, and it provides some much needed information about the Colonel to establish him and Caesar as extremely different (but honestly not all that different) reactions to the same kind of motivation. The Colonel is a bad man, but not comically. He’s low-key but menacing, which Woody Harrelson conveys with a depth levels beyond the character’s skinhead appearance.
He and his people see themselves as the alpha and the omega of the world, and their American flags are graffitied as such. They are the beginning and the end, except of course they are neither. The world existed before them, even in its current ape-filled state. It will exist after them regardless of their ability to control and dominate Caesar and the other apes. They’re holding on to a world they can never return to, and it’s Caesar’s struggle with the same concept that forces their paths to continue crossing until the film’s end.
The two sides are at fundamental odds, and there’s nothing that will change that—even as Caesar slowly begins to right himself late in the story. The Colonel believes that apes, and any humans who fall victim to the virus, don’t deserve to live. His followers, and even the other human troops who don’t exactly agree with his tactics, are ready and willing to empty their clips into apes on first sight. On the flip side, Caesar and the apes just want the chance to exist. They fight not because they want to or because they feel the need to take out the others; they fight because to not fight would be to die.
Rise was a beginning for Caesar and his tribe. Dawn was their fight to establish identity. War is their struggle to survive. This three film journey has been captivating every step of the way, and the latest entry simultaneously takes it to bigger and smaller places than ever before. War is the story of an entire civilization fighting to make it, but it’s also the story of one ape fighting within himself. It’s epic and it’s personal. It’s life or death and it’s just life.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a summer blockbuster, but one with a depth and lasting value that betrays its release date. It’s not a perfect film. It is, however, a perfect encapsulation of an imperfect world—both the one that exists within its narrative and the one in which it was released.