One of the most interesting things to watch over the course of the three most recent Planet of the Apes films has been the shift in focus. Rise of the Planet of the Apes centered on the human overlords, using apes of all shapes and sizes for experimentation. Whether it was for the noblest of reasons or not isn’t really the issue, the science that made it possible for apes to learn at an advanced level and even speak also set the stage for humanity’s demise. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the screen time felt more or less evenly split between humans and apes as Caesar (Andy Serkis, bringing his years of motion-capture experience to a peak), leads the primates to the brink of an all-out war, which suits certain ape factions (led by Toby Kebbell’s Koba) just fine. All the while, humanity is being wiped out by a plague-like disease (a simian flu, if you will), making their struggle against the apes seem petty.
With War for the Planet of the Apes, as the title suggest, war is the status quo. An opening attack in a forrest feels scarily like a skirmish during the Vietnam War, but with the enemies ruling the trees as well as the ground. Director Matt Reeves returns (co-writing this film, along with Mark Bomback, who also had a hand in scripting Dawn) in the boldest and bleakest Apes entry yet, once again shifting the focus further into the world of the apes. Much as the earth itself seems to have given up on humanity in this version of the future, the film itself sees this story as a type of last stand—or last gasp. It has never left my mind that Reeves and company, over the course of his two films, has actually made audiences (made up entirely of human, I presume) root for the apes to win the battle for dominance of the earth.
In a sense, the apes have already won the war. The plague has presumably wiped out most of humanity, although as one character notes, they don’t know for sure whether the rest of the world has suffered this fate. All that seems to be left are military types, one faction of which is led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson in full Col. Kurtz mode), who leads a attack force into a hidden apes camp, presumably with the intent of wiping them out. Instead, he kills a few apes (including some quite close to Caesar), thus sparking the need for revenge on Caesar’s part. Instructing the ape community to relocate, Caesar leads a small group of apes on a hunt for the Colonel, but almost as soon as he leaves, the Colonel’s men sweep in and take the defenseless apes left behind as prisoners. We later find out he’s building a walled fortress in the mountains, using the captured apes as slave labor for its construction.
If you’re sensing a few modern touchstones in this Planet of the Apes entry, well duh! Going back to the original six-film series from the late-1960s and early 1970s, these movies were always about finding situations in the real world and flipping them on their head, making humans the less dominant species. These films commented on everything from America’s involvement in Vietnam and civil rights to the Cold War and the nuclear age. And while the current War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t quite as determined to find parallels with today’s America, there are flashes of commentary that are undeniable and more than welcome.
To further underscore the Apocalypse Now (or should that be Ape-pocalypse Now?) undertones of this film, the journey Caesar and his friends embark on includes meeting several new characters, including a former zoo resident who calls himself Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), because that’s what his human caretakers always called him. In a world where most of the primates still use advanced sign language to talk to each other, it makes a huge difference to hear Zahn’s voice coming from this remarkable, much older, twitchy character. Our heart goes out to him because he’s never been more excited than to find others like him, and seems like a true innocent in a war-torn world. The other new character is a young human girl, given the name Nova (Amiah Miller), a mute whose father is killed by Caesar in a rage and is brought along with the group at the urging of Caesar’s right-hand orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval). Nova becomes an invaluable part of the team, a symbol of hope that apes and humans will again get along one day, and inadvertently turns the tide of the human vs. apes war.
I loved seeing the return of an older, wiser, battle-hardened Rocket (Terry Notary, who motion-captured Kong in Kong: Skull Island), Caesar’s oldest son and a symbol of familial loyalty. One of the most complex characters is one called Rex (Ty Olsson), one of a handful of gorillas working for the humans (who have so much respect for their gorilla/beasts-of-burden subjects that they refer to them as “donkeys”) with the promise that they will be allowed to live after the war is presumably won. He’s a nasty, seemingly mindless creature who reveals a depth and inner-torment that is rarely seen in a character that could have been labeled simply a “villain.” His character haunted me more than anything else about this film.
There are devastating losses on both sides, right up until the final scene, but the emotional weight of these losses is captured remarkably by the combination of the fantastic actors playing the apes; Michael Giacchino’s primal, haunting score; cinematographer Michale Seresin’s moody, lingering shot structure; and the visual effects team, led by Weta’s Joe Letteri. The effects are so powerful and detailed that you never notice them, which is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of all about War for the Planet of the Apes.
The final portions of the movie becomes something akin to The Great Escape (or perhaps even Chicken Run, for you animal lovers), as Caesar’s group plots to free the captive apes and perhaps even kill the Colonel in the process. If there’s one small criticism I’d lay on this film, it’s that the Colonel feels a bit underdeveloped, but Harrelson does some fantastic work filling in a few of the gaps left by the screenplay, and the end result is still compelling as he makes it clear that the enemy is fighting for the future of the human race, even if certain other humans don’t agree with his methods.
There are individual moments and images from War for the Planet of the Apes that will stick with me for a long, long time, and I won’t ruin any of them, but they are rarely pleasant instances. At this point, I think actors need to lobby hard to include motion-capture performances for any and all awards possibilities. What Serkis and others do here goes beyond jumping and running around like monkeys; there’s a depth here that most big-budget films simply don’t even aspire to, let alone achieve. And if the visual effects team doesn’t take home the Oscar, nothing should. As one example, the detail on the apes’ fur—whether it’s wet, snow-covered, matted with blood, or coated in a layer of dirt—is so impressive, you can almost smell it.
I know this is being touted as the end of the trilogy, and to a certain degree, I’m good with that. But I desperately want to see what happens to those who survive War for the Planet of the Apes. Unlike most franchises, each successive film has gotten noticeably better, and I want to see how society develops from this point forward; hell, I want to see Charlton Heston show up in his damn space capsule. Who knew that a film about apes taking over the world would reveal so much humanity? These films mirror the best and worst about us in these evolved beings, and I have a feeling that over the next few years, we’re going to need a lot more reflective material in the arts. See this movie, and then see it again and again.