Boy, the Planet of the Apes series sure is odd, isn’t it? Over the course of almost fifty years and now nine movies this series has vacillated wildly. In terms of quality, tone, and subject matter. There’s been stone-cold classics of American cinema, and absolutely insane messes that are best forgotten (hi Tim Burton’s ill-advised remake!). But they’ve almost always been interesting to check out. Even more so when the recent rebooted series came about. When I first heard about Rise of the Planet of the Apes it sounded kind of ridiculous. Going back to the very beginning of the Ape uprising seemed like a strange call, especially to focus on the humans involved. But, surprisingly, the film ended up actually being primarily about the birth of Caesar, the leader of the Apes, and eventually became a very interesting character study. And that continued into the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which showed Caesar and his family growing more intelligent and powerful while the humans because more vicious and weak. It was taking the franchise in a fascinating new direction. The films actually seemed to be getting better with every installment, which surely made for a risky followup. How do you come back after the surprising greatness of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes? Why, apparently by making one of the best damn movies I’ve seen so far this year.
The film picks up a couple years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The Simian Flu has wiped out a majority of humanity, leaving Caesar and his tribe of apes the healthiest civilization in the area. But things have gotten pretty dire, because a group of soldiers led by an insane Colonel has been waging war against Caesar’s people. They’ve found a new home, far from their current forest, and are planning on heading there to flee from the Colonel. But it came too late, because the night before they all head out the Colonel and his men storm the Apes’ home, and Caesar’s wife and son end up getting killed.Caesar then abandons all previous feeling of amnesty, and order his people head to their new home, while he sets out to kill the Colonel on his own. His friends aren’t going to let that happen though, so Caesar is going to have to venture out with his bodyguard Luka, his adviser Maurice, and his best friend Rocket, while the rest of the Apes head to their new promised land. Caesar and his crew then head North to find the Colonel after jumping a turn-coat Ape who is now working with the humans and finding the Colonel’s location. While travelling though they end up coming across two new companions. A human girl who they eventually name Nova who is suffering from a new strain of the Simian Flu that robs humans of their ability to speak and some of the cognitive faculties, and an Ape who calls himself Bad Ape who has been living by himself for years after seeing his friends and family wiped out by the humans. Bad Ape has the ability to speak, and he tells Caesar and the crew that his people were killed at a nearby military base, which Caesar assumes will be the location of the Colonel. So they set out to find the base, and when they finally do come across it they’re jumped by one of the turn-coat Apes and Luka is killed. Caesar then demands that the rest of the crew leave and find the rest of the Apes, letting him go by on himself.
Caesar then finally locates the military base where the Colonel and his army are based, and finds something horrifying. His people. The Colonel’s soldier apparently found them as they were travelling to the new land, and have now enslaved the Apes and are making them build some sort of wall. Caesar is then captured by the soldiers, and brought before the Colonel. Who is not well. The Colonel is a fanatic who is trying to kill every single Ape in the world, because he thinks it’s the only way to stop this new, more aggressive form of the Simian Flu. Caesar eventually realizes that the rest of the human resistance aren’t on the Colonel’s side, and that they’re going to arrive soon to kill him, which is what the wall is for. So Caesar begins trying to rally his people, getting them to work together to free themselves, to little success. Until his crew shows up. They never actually left Caesar, and have found the Colonel’s base. They start casing the place, and end up finding a way into the base, using underground tunnels. They send Nova in to help Caesar out, and she ends up dropping her doll in his cell. The next day the Colonel finds the doll, and gets suspicious, but plans on having Caesar killed soon anyway, so he just moves along. That night the breakout finally occurs, and the Apes begin fleeing through the tunnels. But Caesar can’t bring himself to do it, and heads off on his own again to find the Colonel. However, when he gets there he finds that the Colonel has caught the new Simian Flu from Nova’s doll, and has become everything he’s hated. Caesar lets the Colonel commit suicide, and then heads out of the base, right as the other human army arrives to defeat the Colonel’s forces. There’s a large fight with Caesar and the Apes trying to get out of the crossfire, and by the end they’ve managed to escape, and head to the promised land. And when they get there Caesar finally succumbs to wounds he got during the battle, leaving his people without a leader, but with a role model.
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. This whole rebooted series has been fascinating. I can’t think of another series that has actually gotten better with each installment, but this one has done the impossible. Rise was an interesting premise that ended up being better than I anticipated. Dawn was surprisingly great and managed to get into some deep places while also being one of the most enjoyable popcorn movies of the year. But War? Folks, War is goddamn great. It’s a fascinating character study that gets even deeper than any of the previous installment has. It has tense action, dramatic and emotional character moments, and a whole lot of heart. You slowly start to forget that you’re looking at mostly CGI creations, and just get swept up in the emotion and the tremendous acting on display here. Andy Serkis is a terrific actor, and he makes it so incredibly easy to relate with Caesar, which should be damn near impossible. Likewise, all of the other Ape actors are tremendous, especially Karin Konoval as Maurice and Steve Zahn as Bad Ape. But the human actors aren’t slouches either. Woody Harrelson is terrific as the insane Colonel, and he gives the character a psychotic depth that makes him one of the scariest villains I’ve seen this year. And it’s all held together with some stunning visual effects, breathing life into these characters and placing you firmly in this world, with all it’s grandeur, horror, and pain.
And all of that coalesced into a very interesting film. I have a hell of a time keeping straight which film was Rise and which one was Dawn. Those words could probably be pretty interchangeable. But there’s no doubt that this film is about War. There’s really not any huge battles, besides the two human armies battling themselves over a minor difference at the end of the film, but nevertheless, this is a film firmly about war. These are characters who have been conscripted into a seemingly never-ending war, and are just trying to live their lives. At the beginning Caesar is hoping to reach some sort of armistice with the humans, letting them both live in peace. But then his family is killed, and he loses all hope for a better future. This feeling of loss puts Caesar into a spiral of rage that ends with him hoping to destroy the humans. And when we finally meet the Colonel we find that he used to just be a solider fighting for the survival of his people. But then his child died, from this Simian Flu, and he too spiraled down into hate, escalating a war. Humanity seems doomed to engage in war, and we probably will be as long as it’s possible to blame our feelings of loss on someone else. Both of these men have lost people that they love, and have decided to take that rage and thrust it upon another person, taking themselves and everyone with them down. War is by nature a destructive force, but in this case, and probably more often than you’d want to thing, that destruction begins on a personal level. Two people’s loss led to a war. And that examination of loss really gets to something fundamental about humanity, or I suppose sentience. And trust me, I wasn’t expecting to find myself meditating on the destructive nature of loss after watching a Planet of the Apes movie, but here we are, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
War for the Planet of the Apes was written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, directed by Matt Reeves, and released by 20th Century Fox, 2017.
Categories: Reel Talk