War for the Planet of the Apes
Runtime: 2 hours 20 minutes
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, and Karin Konoval
I remember being in tenth grade in 2010/2011, a hardcore cinephile up on all movies and movie news, and hearing about a new Planet of the Apes film starring the Gollum motion-capture actor Andy Serkis and James Franco in a serious role. Like most movie-folk at the time, I rolled my eyes at what appeared to be another desperate studio attempt at cashing-out on another nostalgic, expired franchise with a modern reimagining or revitalization with a decent-enough director (Rupert Wyatt). We saw the trailer for Rise of the Planet of the Apes and greeted it with cautious optimism and genuine curiosity. We saw the film when it finally came to theaters and were pleasantly surprised by how well it worked, incredible special effects aside. The sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes came three years later, this time with Cloverfield and Let Me In director Matt Reeves at the reigns, and effectively propelled this new Apes franchise into a higher echelon of quality blockbusters with an aesthetic moodiness reminiscent of recent Christopher Nolan and James Bond films. War for the Planet of the Apes carries over the flawless execution and brooding of the previous installment, closing out an excellent trilogy rivaling the consistency of the Dark Knight and Toy Story series.
War for the Planet of the Apes is set not too long after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; Caesar (Andy Serkis) has since thwarted former ape-comrade Koba’s (Toby Kebbell) uprising against the human colony lead by Gary Oldman and retreated back to the forest with his ape-people to prepare for the inevitable war with the remaining humans. Caesar’s apes and the last of the human military have been at war for some time now. We open with a human battalion searching for Caesar and his hidden ape-encampment, with the help of a handful of defected apes. In the ensuing skirmish, many die and Caesar’s forces take both human and ape prisoners. Caesar releases them on the condition that they inform the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) that he calls his forces off the apes, he’ll leave the humans be as well. As expected, the decision to release the prisoners backfires on Caesar and the Colonel carries out a covert assault on Caesar’s camp, enraging Caesar and spearheading the rest of the film.
It has to be said that the “war” title of the film is somewhat misleading. While there is in fact a war going on between ape and man, the content of the film is much more contained and personal to the protagonist Caesar. In that respect, the titular “war” is in fact a war within Caesar himself. Caesar is still haunted by his having to kill former ally Koba in the previous film, defying his primary law that “ape never kill ape” and in his journey of revenge against Woody Harrelson’s Colonel struggles to reconcile his responsibilities as the leader of his people and vengeance towards those who have wronged him. The development of the Caesar character over the course of the three Apes films has been impeccable, especially considering the shortage of well-thought out, multi-dimensional protagonists in major blockbusters today, and that has a lot to do with Andy Serkis’s masterful performance as the ape.
I’ve always found the Planet of the Apes movies extremely scary – the thought of humanity being displaced by another species at the cost of all social development is nightmarish. War manifests all these social fears and more. Harrelson’s Colonel is very much a manifestation of modern-day chauvinism. He’s blind in his devotion to preserving mankind to the point that’s he’s willing to kill fellow humans and ignore Caesar’s peace proposal. His soldiers worship him as a deity and exhibit cult-like behavior. To the colonel, there is no cost too great as long as it is a means to an end. The second and third acts of the film contain a lot of slavery and holocaust-like imagery, elucidating the greater allegory of this film and the Apes franchise as a whole: a warning that humanity’s unchecked arrogance will inevitably lead to its own destruction. It was human arrogance that produced the chemical agent that made apes intelligent. It was human arrogance that gave James Franco’s character the confidence to harbor Caesar in his own home and consequently introduced a world-ending virus into the world. It was human arrogance that instigated conflict between man and ape and drove Koba to hostility. And it was human arrogance that compelled the Colonel to go after Caesar.
I don’t know if there will be any more Apes films anytime soon (though I have no doubt we’ll see another one at some point down the line), but if (when) there is, whoever is at the helm has a high bar to reach.