If you would have told me at the beginning of 2011 that in six years, we would have the potential to wrap up one of the great trilogies of all time, and that that trilogy would be a Planet of the Apes reboot, I would have thought you were insane.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes arrived in theaters at the end of the summer in 2011 and many (Myself included) wrote it off as some James Franco vehicle that would probably tank.
But then we all saw it and were in awe. Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Caesar, the ape raised by humans who would lead an uprising, was a revelation. He was the star, not Franco.
The cutting-edge motion-capture visual effects and compelling story turned Rise into not only a hit, but the beginning of a new franchise.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes followed three years later and it was even better with new director Matt Reeves behind the camera.
Reeves is back for War for the Planet of the Apes and this new chapter finds Caesar on the run with his family of apes. Following the events of Dawn, a military convoy is in pursuit of the apes as they leave the forrest.
The army of humans, led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), looks to eradicate the apes who they feel started the virus that killed most of the population on Earth.
Caesar doesn’t want a war. This is his conflict through the three films. Unlike the other apes who only see the bad in humans, Caesar has memories of love with them before he decided to join his kind. He fears a deadly conflict will only lead to the deaths of more apes. He desires peace.
But his beliefs are tested early in War for the Planet of the Apes after a tragedy. Peace is no longer an option. He seeks revenge.
War for the Planet of the Apes could have easily been an ambitious and bombastic finale to this trilogy. I mean “War” is right there in the title. But Reeves doesn’t do that. He’s a bit more restrained in his storytelling this time around.
If Rise was an origins story and Dawn was about Caesar learning about the morality of both apes and humans than War focuses on Caesar’s own moral code and where that line is. His internal struggle is what’s driving the story.
He thinks before he acts, but his judgement is impaired after what happens early on and it forces him to act out of anger and rage.
But again, Reeves settles for smaller moments to test Caesar such as whether to leave a human girl behind while on his quest or trusting an unknown ape to lead him to the army base.
These moments temper his emotions a bit, but when he finally comes face-to-face with the colonel, Caesar intends to kill him. Perhaps it’s Caesar’s day of reckoning rather than revenge.
The interactions between Serkis and Harrelson are compelling, but they’re few and far between. Harrelson mostly scowls at Caesar from a distance and when they finally meet, the scene seems like nothing more than an exposition dump. To Reeve’s credit, it’s the only scene like this in the movie, but it still felt a little lazy.
The snowy scenery distinguishes War from the other two films and throwing Caesar in an unknown environment is welcomed, but they could have done a little more with that aspect of the story as an obstacle for our main character.
As a standalone film, War for the Planet of the Apes suffers a bit. The pace meanders in the second act and perhaps a few more scenes with the colonel would have built more momentum for when he and Caesar finally do meet.
The third act is set up as a prison-escape movie which would be a nod to Rise and an interesting comparison to how much Caesar has evolved. But this version lacks the creativity of the first film. Rather than Caesar escaping using his intelligence, here he escapes due to the stupidity of the soldiers on watch.
But certain scenes in the prison shine including Caesar sacrificing himself for his fellow apes so that they can get food and water. There are shades of the Holocaust and slavery here and Reeves does a terrific job highlighting the cost of war rather than fetishizing it.
The action is ramped up near the end with a pair of exciting sequences before concluding with a bittersweet scene between Caesar and his friend, Maurice.
War for the Planet of the Apes may not be the best entry in the series, but it’s still a worthy finale to an all-time great trilogy. What these films have done for both visual effects and storytelling cannot be understated enough and we probably won’t appreciate them for years.