The Apes saga has come a long way from Pierre Boulle’s 1963 sci-fi novel La Planete des Singes and the 1968 adaptation of the book, Planet of the Apes (which next year will be celebrating its 50th anniversary). Four sequels followed that film- Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). A couple of television series, one live action and another animated, followed the film series, and it would take another 28 years to return to the big screen in Tim Burton’s less than enthusiastically received adaptation in 2001. 10 years later, director Rupert Wyatt would bring the apes back in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This time both audiences and critics responded positively. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) took over with the 2014 sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and has remained with the latest film, War for the Planet of the Apes, to see this newest trilogy to a close.
And what a close it is, delivering a very fitting end to the trilogy begun in 2011. It’s rare that the third film of a trilogy eclipses the first, and even rarer that with each film the quality increased. But War succeeds in doing that, wrapping up the story line while still keeping open the possibility of the series to continue.
War continues the tale of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the intelligent chimpanzee who now leads the apes hiding in the Muir forest in California. Caesar himself has come a long way since his exposure to the test drug ALZ-113, which caused the spread of the Simian Flu which decimated the human population. Caesar had arrived at a temporary truce with one group of humans by the end of Dawn, but now the military unit he had been warned of has arrived. The unit isn’t solely comprised of humans- apes who had followed Koba (Toby Kebbell), who Caesar had killed in Dawn’s finale, are helping the soldiers, though they are not especially treated as equals or with any amount of respect (the soldiers refer to these apes as Donkeys, even painting the word on their hides). A battle ensues, with Caesar showing mercy by allowing survivors to return back to their unit with a message- leave the apes in peace.
Naturally, this doesn’t come to pass, as the head of the unit, which calls itself Alpha-Omega (a nice nod to the nuclear bomb in Beneath), is not about to let the apes live in peace. His goal is especially to eliminate Caesar, and a raid on the apes’ home leads to an event which spurs Caesar to undertake a quest of revenge, vowing to kill the leader known as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). This makes for a moral quandary for Caesar, who struggles not to go down the same path that Koba followed. Caesar heads out to find The Colonel, accompanied by the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), and the gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). Along the way, they encounter a young girl (Amiah Miller) who has lost the ability to speak, along with an eccentric chimp who calls himself Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). There’s a nice nod to the 1968 original when the girl wants to take one of Bad Ape’s possessions, the name plate to a Chevy Nova, which leads Maurice to christen her Nova. Eventually they arrive at The Colonel’s base, only to find the rest of Caesar’s apes being held captive.
It’s at this point the movie takes a turn from being an action oriented war movie to more of a prisoner of war movie. While this does make the middle section a bit slower in pace, it does provide for a nice amount of tension and some terrific dramatic scenes between Caesar and The Colonel. Harrelson delivers a chilling performance, making The Colonel a very dangerous foe. But he’s not without nuance nor completely without any humanity. A glimpse into his backstory helps us understand The Colonel’s motives better, and watching the two leaders struggle with their own inner demons makes for some very good drama. Serkis again rises to the task, bringing life to Caesar in an Oscar worthy performance, and the film benefits from both actors rising above what could have been more one note characters. While we may root for Caesar, there is the worry that he will succumb to a darker side. The Colonel may be the “bad guy”, but there’s enough depth here to cause us to sympathize a little with his actions, despite some of their inherent cruelty. Learning that the Simian Flu has evolved to render humans mute and cause them to revert to primitive behavior helps to make the soldiers a bit more understandable, even when their actions are a bit deplorable.
In addition to the multiple nods to the original series of Apes movies, the film echoes some war movies as well. The messages on the helmets of the soldiers seem inspired by those from Full Metal Jacket. The opening scene of the wild firefight in the forest echoes a similar one in Platoon. The prison camp sequence at times reminded me of The Great Escape or Stalag 17, and having the apes build The Colonel’s wall seemed to be politically timely as well as being reminiscent of The Bridge over the River Kwai, where the Japanese compelled prisoners to construct a bridge for them. Reeves wisely makes these scenes more homages than derivative, making the movie more layered than just delivering a straight up action flick. However, Reeves doesn’t ignore action in favor of drama, as scenes at the beginning and end of the film are well staged set pieces that are as thrilling as any combat sequence found in a war movie. Visually the film is impressive to behold, and the CGI apes behave perfectly, making us forget that they are digital creations and not the real thing. Michael Giacchino’s score provides the perfect backdrop to the film, echoing at times Jerry Goldsmith’s music from the 1968 original.
In all, War for the Planet of the Apes makes for a thrilling finale to the new trilogy. Combat sequences are expertly staged, and though the film’s mid-section slows the pace a bit, it provides for plenty of terrific dramatic moments. The performances are all excellent, from the two leads of Serkis and Harrelson to the secondary characters like Zahn’s Bad Ape (who provides much of the movie’s humor) to the human Preacher (Gabriel Chavarria), a soldier who Caesar allows to live early on in the film and who comes back later to great effect. Director Matt Reeves gives us a satisfactory close to the trilogy, while leaving just enough opening to continue on with a new tale. Between the performances and the action scenes, this is not only one of the best movies you’ll see this summer, but may end up being one of the best movies of the year. Don’t miss this one.
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