Who would’ve thunk that, in the age of adaptation, the best film reboot franchise of all time would be Planet of the Apes? The classic series has always had a compelling story behind it, and the original 1968 film made waves, but before screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver got their stinkin’ paws on it, the idea never really got the in-depth examination it deserved. Nowadays, the franchise is a critical and commercial juggernaut, consistently offering fascinating commentary, memorable characters, and phenomenal special effects.
The third film in this reboot series, War for the Planet of the Apes, is no exception. This is the first of the three to not be written by Jaffa and Silver, and admittedly, their loss is palpable at certain times, but the movie is just as riveting as the rest of them. The series’ star, Andy Serkis, delivers his finest performance to date, marking himself as a serious contender for the first actor in a CGI role to be nominated for, and perhaps win, an Academy Award. His human foil in the movie, Woody Harrelson, is just as phenomenal; his performance led me to ponder if Harrelson is one of the greatest actors alive. Of course, no one does comic relief better than Steve Zahn, who shows up in the film as an escaped zoo ape who speaks limited English and leads Caesar’s merry apes to Harrelson’s military compound.
The plot of the movie goes something like this: humans raid Caesar’s compound. The apes are victorious, but send the humans back alive as a peace offering. The humans don’t take kindly to this, and launch another raid on the base, killing Caesar’s wife and son. Now Caesar’s out for revenge, taking along three other apes and a mute human girl. After being captured by the humans, he seeks to kill Harrelson, but is haunted by the spirit of Koba and relents, seeking a route that won’t result in the death of his fellow apes. Among the human troops, Harrelson is a sort of god-king, and he believes that the apes will come to rise up and turn the humans into cattle if they aren’t neutralized. We’re entering into spoiler territory up ahead, so skip to the end if you don’t want to know what happens.
At the end of the movie, Caesar’s ape buddies prepare an elaborate escape plan. Harrelson, now suffering from the same ailment that made the girl and the abandoned soldier mute, shoots himself. Just as the apes are leaving, an opposing white-clad human force shows up and destroys the entire camp in a sea of explosions. An avalanche takes out those humans, but the apes survive by taking refuge in tall trees. They make their journey to a desert safe haven, and Caesar dies just outside of it. It’s a really touching and thought-provoking bookend for Caesar’s story, and he’s survived by his son Cornelius, who you may recognize as the lead ape from the 1968 film. How the whole world gets taken over in the lifespan of a single ape, I couldn’t tell you. But it’ll be cool to see where the series goes from here.
War is a thought-provoking movie in a lot of ways, but first and foremost, it’s an Exodus story, the humans being the Egyptians and the apes being the Israelites. The apes are enslaved by the humans and their god-king. The apes’ leader, Caesar (Moses), who is well-known among the humans and can speak their language, leads them out of captivity and to a “promised land,” but dies before he can enter the land himself and is succeeded by a close friend and confidante. Of course, there’s plenty more to think about here. Harrelson’s warlord is a textbook fascist who forces the apes to build a wall (on the California/Oregon border) to keep out his enemies. Caesar, Bad Ape, and the mute human girl bring up a lot of interesting ideas about communication and how people from different cultures understand each other. Practically every decision Caesar makes in this movie, or any of these movies, has a tremendous weight to it. He’s a pragmatic and elegant leader, but still a deeply flawed character.
I give War for the Planet of the Apes a 93%. Despite some minor narrative shortcomings, it’s just as profound and entertaining as Rise and Dawn, and immediately stands out as one of the best movies of the summer.