In what might be the most improbable turn in franchise filmmaking this decade, Fox has managed to pull off a Planet of the Apes trilogy which perfectly encapsulates the 2010s as a decade of dramatic change.
Where Rise took us on an ironically hopeful journey of apes staking their claim on this planet, and where Dawn raised those stakes considerably, War for the Planet of the Apes takes a considerably darker turn as its heroes embark on a revenge western with all the fervor of a religious epic. Returning director Matt Reeves sticks the landing on this trilogy in spectacular fashion, leaving us much to ponder as humanity continues down its path of self-destruction.
It’s been fifteen years since the simian flu decimated humanity, and the humans are preparing to make their last stand against the apes. This time, the ape leader Caesar—in a heartbreaking motion capture performance by Andy Serkis—finds himself up against Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), a religious zealot who has taken to killing off his own people in order to cleanse humanity of its lingering disease. When McCullough raids Caesar’s home and murders his loved ones, Caesar and his posse embark upon a quest for revenge.
Despite what the title may suggest, War isn’t necessarily a war film. There are battle sequences involving soldiers and rockets and all that fun stuff, and also Rocket is there, but the dramatic thrust of the story is an intimate affair between bitter rivals. The film borrows various notes from The Revenant, The Searchers and even Schindler’s List in coloring in its decidedly bleak outlook. As we meet Caesar in this film, he’s emotionally drained by the role he’s taken on, and just as he thinks he’s finally found a moment of peace, McCullough comes along and makes things personal (and then has the nerve to chastise Caesar for taking it personally!)
The great tragedy of this franchise finds that Caesar really has no quarrel with humans. The specter of Rise of the Planet of the Apes looms large here, as we’re constantly reminded that humans have been to blame for everything up to this point. The genetic modifications, the miracle drugs, the simian flu, the overreactions and escalations; humans caused all of this. It’s been up to Caesar to find a way to, if not live peacefully with humans, then at least find a way for his family to live on their own. The final act paints Caesar as a Moses figure in bold relief, almost to the point of overstating the obvious. What began as a tale of revenge circles back around to the notion of Caesar as the mythic Ape Leader that the films have always spoken of in revered, hushed tones. This is the Caesar that they’ll one day make statues of.
But before we can get there, there’s the business of Colonel McCullough.
Woody Harrelson brings an intensity to his performance that makes McCullough downright spooky. He’s a true believer with a deep apocalyptic streak, and is preparing his soldiers—dubbed Alpha Omega, because when you’re a biblical nut you go for the gold—for humanity’s last stand. Harrelson has that wild-eyed stare that cuts straight through his enemies, but he does it all with a smirk and a wry comment. He’s like if Tallahassee from Zombieland lost himself in a bible and never came back.
Caesar’s revenge quest leads him and his posse to an abandoned outpost where they meet a little girl (Amiah Miller) stricken mute by the simian flu. Caesar’s crew insist on taking her with them, and in his guilt and grief, he relents. This middle portion of the film delivers a bracing amount of heart, as the story reinforces Caesar’s belief in the inherent goodness of humans. The girl, which the apes name Nova (hint hint), harbors no ill will toward apes, and even agrees to help them along the way. Here’s where The Searchers’ influence really kicks in. It’s a unique inversion where it’s not Caesar’s prejudices that are up for debate here, but rather those of his enemy. It may not be too much of a leap to view McCullough as an Ethan Edwards type.
And yet, for all of its thematic weight and anguished emotions, War’s greatest trick is that it wraps all that up in a colossally fun package. This is first and foremost a summer blockbuster, after all, and Matt Reeves does not let you forget it. The action setpieces that open and close the film are a dazzling rush of gunplay and explosions, and Reeves’ staging works these scenes wonderfully. And then, amidst all the fire and smoke, Caesar’s final encounter with McCullough is a haunting moment not easily forgotten.
Speaking of which, it’s been a week since I’ve seen this film and certain passages have not left my mind. There’s a great prison break sequence early in the third act that rivals anything else in the series, and the role that Steve Zahn’s character, Bad Ape, plays is just great. Then there’s the whole underpinning of the character being named Bad Ape in the first place, not to mention the audacity of the film turning the name Donkey Kong into a racial slur against apes. There are a hundred great things about this film worthy of dissection and discussion that simply won’t fit into one review. All I can do from here is encourage you to check this one out. If you’ve enjoyed this current run of Apes films, there is seriously no reason to stop now.Liked This? Share It!