Many things about the past few years have shocked me. 2007 me I would never have believed that George Lucas would sell Star Wars to Disney, that I would come to love my cell phone, or that Donald Trump would win the 2016 presidential election. Most surprising of all, 20th Century Fox’s Planet of the Apes reboot is the best movie trilogy since at least Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, if not the original Star Wars trilogy. War for Planet of the Apes is an unexpectedly emotional conclusion to this unexpectedly thoughtful saga.
Note: I have tried to keep spoilers for War for Planet of the Apes to a minimum…
I had seen the original 1968 Planet of the Apes as a child, as well as Tim Burton’s remake in 2001, but never felt any particular attachment to the franchise. I appreciated the social commentary about evolution and racism, but the movies never quite worked for me. Part of the problem was the special effects. The makeup and costumes in the original films, while impressive for the time, looked dated by the 1990s. I could never take the premise of a civilized apes all that seriously when all I could see was a bunch of rubber masks.
As such, Planet of the Apes is one of the few times when technology justified a reboot. In 2011’s Rise of Planet of the Apes, Weta Workshop (of Lord of the Rings fame) brought the apes to life using computer-generated imagery. Gone were the anthropomorphic apes depicted by humans wearing rubber masks; the apes in Rise looked and behaved like apes. The movie follows Caesar, a young chimpanzee rescued from a medical research laboratory, who later leads an ape revolt. It serves as a sort of origin story for the franchise. However, because the apes look and act so real, I found myself more invested in the ape characters by the end of the movie than the human ones.
Dawn of Planet of the Apes took this premise to the next logical step by focusing primarily on the ape characters. The film is essentially a political story about leaders who fight for peace and the extremists who undermine them. When Caesar meets Malcolm, a human survivor from San Fransisco, the two try to work together so that both the societies can live in peace. Yet, like Gandhi and Jinnah, or Sadat and Rabin, both leaders find that the greatest obstacles to peace come from extremists amongst their own followers. On the ape side, one of Caesar’s lieutenants, the bonobo Koba, argues for a preemptive strike against the humans. In Rise, Koba had been subjected to painful medical experiments, so his distrust of humans is understandable. Koba’s past clearly scarred him physically and mentally. Yet, in his attempted coup against Caesar, he ends up violating a cardinal ape prohibition against killing other apes. Caesar survives, but peace does not.
War for Planet of the Apes takes place two years after Dawn. As befits its title, the film begins with humans and apes in open conflict. The chance for peace has passed. An army unit led by Colonel McCullough is tracking down the apes’ forest hideout. Yet, like Dawn, War is more of a character study than your typical summer blockbuster. This time, Caesar has to overcome his own anger towards humanity. Caesar is no longer the adorable little chimp we saw in Rise. Whereas in Dawn Caesar had to stop Koba from disturbing the peace, in War he has to stop himself from becoming Koba. Indeed, for most of the characters in this film, the challenge is not so much physical survival as spiritual survival.
Like Logan and Dunkirk, War for Planet of the Apes is yet another franchise film this year that blurs the lines between blockbuster and arthouse cinema. As Darren Mooney of TheM0vieBlog notes, many of this year’s genre films are quieter than the typical blockbuster. They don’t lack for action, but they don’t inundate audiences with unnecessary explosions or yelling. When the Apes communicate, they often do so through sign language rather than spoken words. Meanwhile, the virus that wiped out most of humanity after Rise has started to render the rest of the humans mute. Near the start of the film, the Apes find a young human girl who can only communicate through hand gestures. This is part of broader theme in the Apes franchise about the importance of communication and language; in the 1968 film, the apes only acknowledge Taylor as sentient when he writes a message to his captors. War goes beyond using the lack of communication for social commentary and turns it into an art form. Some of my favorite scenes in the film manage convey emotions simply through music and imagery.
I also appreciated how War for Planet of the Apes manages to tell a story with plenty of surprises without resorting to gimmicky plot twists. War has a fairly conventional story – essentially a western combined with a prison escape – told in a fairly unconventional way. It avoids many of the tropes we’ve come to expect in summer blockbusters. For example, despite the title, there is relatively little fighting in the film. The most intense action sequence takes place in the first half hour. Moreover, who fights and why becomes more important than the fighting itself. Perhaps the most surprising thing about War for Planet of the Apes is that it doesn’t try to make its audience feel good or provide easy answers. It is at times quite cynical about human nature and violence, so much so that by the end most audience members will probably find themselves rooting for the apes.
In this age of endless Hollywood remakes, reboots, and relaunches, Planet of the Apes serves as a good example of how to do a reboot right. As Todd VanDerWerff of Vox points out, these films have a reason to exist other than making money or promoting future films in a cinematic universe. They differ from the original Planet of the Apes films in that they focus on the apes instead of the humans, but still emulate the originals in their engagement with social issues. The films first and foremost attempt to tell engaging stories. It also helps that the people working on this franchise care. Director Matt Reeves studied cinema classics for inspiration. Two of the writers on Rise, Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, even treated Caesar like a member of their family.
Ultimately, the highest praise I can give War for Planet of the Apes is that the story moved me emotionally in a way few other films have. I laughed and cried, I felt anger and joy. I found myself caring for Caesar, Maurice, Luca, and even Nova. Ironically, despite having been a lifelong Star Wars fan, I didn’t feel nearly this emotional when I saw The Force Awakens. Which just goes to show that you don’t need to be a diehard fan of the Apes franchise to enjoy this latest installment. As long as you can accept the apes as characters, War for Planet of the Apes will convince you of their humanity.