The Planet of the Apes franchise is one of Hollywood’s longest and most enduring film properties. Yet, at one time or another it also became one of the most dismissive; especially after Tim Burton’s poorly received Apes remake, which almost served as proof that there was no life left in the concept. It was a pleasant surprise that Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) was not only well constructed, but acclaimed both critically and popularly. A change in director was perhaps one of many factors that made its follow up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) better than the original, building a narrative crescendo that peaks to a spectacular climax in War for the Planet of the Apes.
In this third outing, taking place two years after the events of Dawn, Ceasar (Andy Sirkis) still leads his band of apes, ever vigilant against humanity’s desire for their extinction. He’s content to keep his people hidden within the confines of their jungle environment, until the military zealot Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) strikes him a devastating blow. With the accepted-reluctantly aid provided by Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) which leads Caesar on a quest to end McCullough and this war once and for all.
One of the brilliant aspects of this series is the creation of an entire mythology through the telling of a singular, personal narrative; specifically, through the life journey of Caesar (Andy Sirkis) from his humble beginnings through his personal conflicts. When taken as a whole, his cinematic journey parallels that of the biblical figure Moses, cast out and taken in by a different people, raised as one of them, only to be cruelly reminded that he is radically different, and finds himself leading his people out of captivity and slavery, searching for a promised land to call their own. It’s this (not so) subtle parallelism that gives the proceedings a greater dramatic weight than even the original 1970s films ever contained (when they were simply dismissed as atomic age allegory). But these parallels aren’t the only things that elevate this film series. Military and (arguably) jingoistic/religious zealotry, coupled with the desire to exterminate an entire race for the sins of a few are sadly relevant today. This makes for a nagging uncomfortable feeling, since the film’s perspective skews decidedly in favor of the apes, whose oppressive victimization is escalated here. Unlike the previous two films, the humans here, epitomized in Harrelson’s surprising and effective turn as the unhinged McCullough, are almost completely unsympathetic. While there is an argument to be made for McCullough’s point of view, it is vaguely defensible at best. The film presents two points of view, and the tragedy that exists and persists when intransigent viewpoints hold. It argues that intransigency lays the foundation to the Apocalypse, and it is a metatextually resonant message.
While it’s difficult to determine with certainty whether there is an intentional political agenda behind this film, there is no argument that this is not only the best film in the series, but a powerful, engaging film in its own right. Matt Reeves, returning as director for the second time, proves his mastery at mood. The action sequences, while impressive, take a back seat to moments. The pacing is that of a thriller (psychological or horror, take your pick), replete silent, maddening tension, ready to explode at a moment’s notice, leaving the viewer anticipating and dreading when it comes, if ever. Michael Giacchino’s score, much like Bernard Hermann, uses his orchestrations to ratchet the moments, and it’s one of the few times his scoring comprises of recognizable, distinct motifs. They stand out on their own and stay with you even as they build the mood of their specific themes. Never would one have thought that an Apes movie would be stylistically considered Hitchockian. Stranger things have happened.
But for all of its possible lofty intentions, the strength of this film likes in its characterization. Frankly, these films in general, and this one in particular, would be nothing without Andy Serkis. His evolution of the Caesar character is this series’ hallmark, giving depth and poignancy to what could have been dismissed as a CGI gimmick. Here, his Ceasar is tired and world weary; yet also resolutely vengeful as he ventures away from his flock to exact personal retribution. His journey is tumultuously emotional even as it is physical, yet filed with dignity and resoluteness. It’s a powerful performance by Serkis. Supporting players Konoval, Notary, and Adamthwaite bolster Serkis’ performance while keeping their own characters dramatically arresting in and of themselves. Newcomer Amiah Miller is precocious as the mute girl the quartet encounter in their journey, and special mention goes to Steve Zahn as “Bad Ape”, a chimp whose ability to speak rivals Caesar’s own proficiency and provides MUCH needed comic relief to this film. But no matter how powerful the performances are, they would have been disserviced if the special effects weren’t top notch. The CGI has advanced to the point that the apes are as natural as anything seen on screen, melding seamlessly with not only their surroundings, but the human playing actors as well. The viewer has no choice but to buy into it.
War of the Planet of the Apes serves as a fitting end to a trilogy, as well as a foundation for future films. It is a powerful and arguably far-too-resonant piece of artistic filmmaking, allegorical not only to the myths of the past but to the possible dangers of the future. What could have once been dismissed as campy escapist absurdism has instead transformed into Shakespearian apologue; a cautionary tale which shines a subversively disturbing, unapologetic light upon humanity, quixotically doing so entertainingly. It's a film to go ape for.