I’ve probably stated elsewhere that it’s the Planet Of The Apes remake trifecta that’s the great, unsung movie trilogy of the decade but I only say these things because they’re true. The first film, the unwieldy titled Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, was an utter suprise, introducing us to future monkey Moses Ceasar from birth to young adulthood before dropping him into a gripping prison movie scenario where he single handedly – yet quite inadvertently – kicks off the beginning of the end of the human race. The second film (swap out Rise for Dawn) brought in Matt Reeves to take over for Rupert Wyatt and gave this brave new world a wet, weather beaten facelift as the smart apes continue to build their increasingly dominant society as the humans struggle to survive with the tipping point of power triggering Caesar’s homosapien hating lieutenant into escalating a full scale battle to determine the fate of this ever-so furrier future.
But this left the third movie, War For The Planet Of The Apes, with somewhat of a story telling conundrum as Dawn essentially tied up most of it’s loose ends and also managed to contain, y’know, and actual war (or at the very least a sizable battle), where on earth could the franchise go from here?
Straight up suffering and misery, that’s where.
A rogue military faction and Caesar’s ape army have been embroiled in a bitter guerilla war (with actual gorillas) for the past two years only to be at a costly stalemate. The humans, led by a fanatic known only as The Colonel are desperate to take out this mysterious ape leader who’s name has entered almost mythic status while some of Caesar’s troops are terrified by the very notion of this brutal “Colonel” who’s blood thirsty reputation make them go weak at their monkey knees. Also complicating matters is that all the Apes who sided against Caesar in the brief ape civil war in the previous movie has defected to the humans out of fear of punishment from their former leader but are dubbed “Donkeys” and are treated as the underclass.
Things ultimately come to a head when a assassination attempt from the Colonel himself takes a terrible toll on Caesar’s loved ones and just like that, the stable and just leader becomes embroiled with a desperate thirst for revenge and he sends his whole tribe off to safer climes while he goes off on his own to take the Colonel down a rank or two in the food chain. Reluctantly allowing his loyal inner circle to join him on his suicide mission, the group first come across a mute little human girl they name Nova and then Bad Ape, an isolated chimp who has been surviving separate from all the other apes and yet still has evolved to be able to speak english. As Caesar’s odessy reaches it’s end he is forced to weigh up his desire for revenge against the future of ape kind when it turns out the entirety of his tribe has been enslaved by the Colonal who is preparing for an attack by his superiors, but can he possibly endure the torture that will be heaped upon him long enough to figure out how to lead his species to the promised land?
Whereas the first movie was lusciously kissed by San Francisco sunshine and the second was drenched in the earthy mists and rain, War takes us into a desolate and harsh winter as the seasons that represent the last years of human superiority get ever crueler on man and ape alike. The rebooted Apes franchise has never been particularly kind to it’s characters with death or enslavement usual around the corner for anyone regardless of how straight or sloped their posture may be, but War pushes the stresses these movies place on it’s heroes like never before. Going full on Passion Of The Chimp with the indignities heaped upon the stoic shoulders of Andy Serkis’ proud leader (his mastery of the craft of acting in a grey suit covered in ping pong balls cannot be overstated) this is more of a war of the internal than an out and out conflagration; although bullets and spears are liberally traded in the opening act.
No, the real battle here is that of wills, as Caesar’s iron determination is pitched directly against Woody Harrelson’s nameless Colonal who believes every hideous act he performs is justified in the face of human survival.
It’s a simple but canny move as up to this point the trilogy has placed various random shitty humans in his path – be it Tom Felton’s asshole chimp handler or Gary Oldman’s grief stricken survivor – but War finally gives Caesar a legitimate villain to lock horns with and Harrelson, sporting the shaved head and goateed look of a chimp hating Stone Cold Steve Austin relishes playing this man who thinks acting like a genocidal dam against the fall of the human race is the divine task he was born for.
Other new characters prove to be of equally high quality with the character of Red, a gorilla forced to work with the humans as a “Donkey” against his own kind, being utterly fascinating and who has one of the best arcs in the film, Steve Zahn brings a delicate (but necessary – because, by god this movie is grim) dose of comedy as tragic, parker wearing weirdo, Bad Ape and the “adoption” of mute child Nova is not only poignant as hell but offers an important clue as to how the human race may possibly proceed from this point onward.
Any bad points? Not really. Some may decry the lack of an actual war for a film with that word so prominently featured in the title and the last minute clearing of the board thanks to a suspiciously convenient avalanche is a bit convoluted, but Matt Reeves and everyone involved really should be lauded for turning in a movie that mostly holds it’s integrity doesn’t cop out with any easy options and holds it’s own despite the fact that it’s a special effects filled summer blockbuster that dares to wield it’s subtlety as a potent weapon all the way up to it’s hugely affecting ending.
A profoundly emotional ending to a top notch trilogy, the new Apes films have finally achieved what the series’ other movies failed to master, the cruelty tinged humanity of the original 1968 classic that finally now, in the character of Caesar, has a true and worthy successor.
Defiantly grim, yet exceptionally moving, this is the majestic finish the Apes trilogy deserved which also manages to find time to finally slip in the “monkey throwing faeces” joke the entire franchise his been screaming out for over fifty years…