A quick review of where we’ve been:
In 2011, director Rupert Wyatt rebooted the classic Apes series with a soon-to-be-apocalyptic vision of human scientific discoveries gone awry with Rise of the the Planet. In Rise, a drug intended to cure alzheimer’s in humans leads to the creation of intelligent apes. One such ape gets out, goes on a rampage, and as a result, all other apes are euthanized. The lead scientist on the project takes an infant ape named Caesar to live at home, and as Caesar (Andy Serkis) grows, he must reckon with who, and what, he is.
In 2014, director Matt Reeves picked up the story with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It’s 10 years later and the world has fully collapsed after a new virus, the Simian Flu, has killed most of the earth’s human population. Only a few immune humans remain. Caesar leads the smart apes in a community in the redwoods north of San Francisco. As human-ape conflict looms during a inter-species effort to rebuild an energy station, Caesar works to keep the peace. Nevertheless, an ape named Koba burns down the ape colony, framing the humans and instigating war between the species.
Which brings us to War For the Planet of the Apes, the third and final installment in this Apes series, again directed by Reeves. That a war will occur is spoiled by the title of this film, but it’s also the only way for a series like Apes to end.
In War, the Simian Flu has evolved, and no one is immune. Humans who are infected begin a slow devolution, losing the ability to speak, and eventually, the ability for complex reasoning.
I’ll leave most of the plot untold. Suffice it to say that War pits two leaders against each other in a post-apocalpytic, existential-level scenario. Caesar faces off against Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson). They’re at odds, desperate to kill the other in order to save their own species, but both are capable of seeing the threat and fear that motivates their foe.
It’s important to consider the entirety of this series when reviewing War for Planet of the Apes, because only when the three are placed together does the inspiration of the series really thrive. Apes is the story of two species, intertwined beautifully by a conflict that is simultaneously tragic and inevitable.
One story tells of a collapsing civilization. A species at the height of their evolutionary capacity brought to the brink of extinction by the side-effect of a scientific experiment meant to save the mind. In the effort to maintain reason, humans lose it.
The other story is one of ascendancy. A new evolutionary step taken by a species that, once enlightened, is eager to explore and push their capacity. The apes are not monolithic. They interpret the world and act accordingly, different from one to the next. They’re blossoming just as humans are facing existential destruction.
The set-up in War for Planet of the Apes might incline one to think they know how this film will unfold. We know what must happen, the real question is how will it go, and will the outcome satisfy audiences, providing an exit for a film, and a series, that is emotionally conclusive.
Rest assured War for the Planet of the Apes is moving, and surprising in ways you don’t yet know to expect.
By all accounts, the Planet of the Apes reboot should have been one among the many middling SF/F series peppering our cineplexes. It’s the third iteration of the apes on screen, if you count Tim Burton’s ill-fated rendition (and people should count it, even though it sucks), and given the inherent silliness of the apes v. human concept, the series does not demand continued exploration.
But the films ventured forth, anyway, and thank god they did.
Hollywood franchise entertainment for the past decade is littered with the mundane accomplishments that define steady-handed, studio-based multi-film movie making. The standard tactic these days is to provide audiences with only the movie they expect. CGI heavy but not completely alien. Write in one or two interesting metaphors/thematic concepts, but don’t ask the audience to do any mental lifting. Include a misdirection in the story, a mysterious arrival or possible death, but telegraph the actual outcome from the start. And for god’s sake, don’t leave people feeling conflicted. Hit the emotional notes with a hammer, but keep those emotions uncomplicated.
Even given these parameters for sameification, there are some very good movies that litter the landscape of franchising in the new era. Guardians of the Galaxy was one such film. Captain America: Winter Soldier, another. Alien: Covenant might be among them. These movies land like a meteor, leaving a thousand producers chasing the tail of a meteorite now turned to dust. But most franchise movies, be they superhero universes or science-fiction reboots or Jurassic World, just burn out in the atmosphere, rightfully forgotten before the credits roll.
Then, there’s Planet of the Apes. Apes is the only franchise since Harry Potter that has bucked the common-held wisdom of what a big-budget sf/f series should do.
Planet of the Apes embraced CGI not as a tool for wowing audiences with action sequences, but as its modus operandi; 50% of the characters in the series are 100% CG. In doing so, the technology that captured Andy Serkis (whose work on Apes is the gold-standard for motion-capture) became an asset to the series, rather than a distraction.
Planet of the Apes doesn’t hint towards social and political subjects that resonate with audiences. Most of today’s blockbuster entertainment winks at contemporary parallels but lacks the courage (ticket sales don’t like courage) to take an intelligent, critical stance on any issue of importance. Marvel, for example, thrives on pointing towards an issue but looking away just before it gets interesting. Not so Apes, which in its form and content embodies technological, social and political resonance.
Perhaps the most satisfying decision made by Planet of the Apes is to commit to the boundaries of a trilogy, avoiding the pitfalls of extended universes and clumsy faux-deaths and sour-tasting surprises. In doing so, Planet of the Apes avoids the need for redemptive human story arcs meant to win easy emotional points while teasing out future film installments. By embracing its story limits, the series provides a remarkably rare film element that many audiences are will relish: an ending.
Christopher Zumski Finke