Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Amiah Miller, Steve Zahn
Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves
No movie about sentient apes has any business being this good. Even the original 1968 Charlton Heston movie isn’t so much a serious, profound picture with deep philosophical and sociological themes as it is a campy and often humorous sci-fi adventure-thriller (albeit an intelligent, well-made one). This prequel trilogy took the ideas raised by the original, modernised them, and has gone on to depict them with a greater degree of intimacy and sophistication than I’d ever have thought possible of a story about talking primates. The film’s allegory of racism, politics, and culture is similarly depicted with a reflective sense of irony, but is far less satirical about it. The conflict between the humans and the apes is more complex, more substantial, and more morally ambiguous and War of the Planet of the Apes goes even further than Rise or Dawn ever did, capping off one of the best Hollywood trilogies of the 21st century.
Two years after The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes when the strained tension between the humans and the apes finally erupted into an all-out war, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his troops are engaged in a conflict with Alpha-Omega, a rogue faction of the U.S. Army led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After releasing some human prisoners and expressing to them his desire for peace, Caesar becomes a subject of personal interest to The Colonel, who subsequently leads an attack on the ape base, killing half of Caesar’s family. From here Caesar sets out on a quest for vengeance, accompanied only by his closest friends and advisors Maurice (Karin Konoval), an orangutan, Rocket (Ty Olsson), a chimp, and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), a gorilla. Along the way they discover a human girl, rendered mute and simple by some unknown cause, whom Maurice takes into his care and calls Nova (Amiah Miller). They also meet Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a reclusive chimpanzee who knows the location of the Alpha-Omega base. There Caesar finds The Colonel and faces him in a battle that will ultimately define the fates of both of their species.
The achievement of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was drawing the humans and the apes into war with each other in such a way that we could understand the views and choices of both sides to the point that we cannot even really say for sure who started it. Now its two years later and there’s no clear victor or even an end in sight. Caesar’s main priority is survival, but even after all that’s happened what he really wants is peace and for the apes to be left alone to live their lives. The humans however will not abide co-existence with another species of equal, if not superior, intelligence. Thus Caesar is forced to continue fighting this war and suffer the tragedies that come with it. As soon as his loved ones die by the hands of The Colonel, so does any chance of peace. From there it becomes all about vengeance. One of this film’s achievements is how strongly it depicts Caesar’s turmoil; the despondent grief he feels upon losing his family, the cold single-mindedness he brings to his hunt for The Colonel, the way he loses his very soul along with everything else that gave his life any kind of meaning. The movie makes the narrative decision to stay with Caesar throughout his quest (rather than cutting away on occasion to show us what Woody Harrelson is up to) and it is by following him at every step and seeing all that occurs through his eyes that we are able to identify so strongly with him.
Another reason of course is Andy Serkis who has, perhaps more than other actor in the past couple of decades, almost single-handedly redefined what acting is and can be. The remarkable thing about the CGI complexion they give him is that you can still see the actor beneath it all. The expressions and gestures are all his and are all so genuine that Caesar feels as real and as human as anything else. That he has portrayed this character across an entire lifetime from infancy to adulthood to old age over the course of three movies is in itself an astonishing feat. Here he deftly conveys the kind of forlorn, world-weary melancholy that you only get from those old veteran characters who have been through hell and have carried it with them ever since, the kind that we saw from Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven and Hugh Jackman in Logan, to name a couple. This is a character who deserves to be memorialised in the hall of fame of sci-fi heroes and, if the Oscars were to finally look past the CGI barrier and recognise the actor behind it all, it would be well-deserved and about time.
It still astonishes me that I can watch a war take place between human beings and talking apes and take it as seriously as I could if I were watching Platoon. Indeed, there are echoes of Vietnam in this movie (which, unlike Kong: Skull Island, does not beat you over the head with it) and it is clear that Matt Reeves was especially inspired by Apocalypse Now (there’s even one point in the film where you can see the term ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’ inscribed in graffiti). This is especially apparent in Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, a bald, philosophical villain cut from the same cloth as Kurtz and holding a similar heart of darkness (although his goal of building a wall does invite comparison to another figure). There is a parallel between him and Caesar as The Colonel seems to be fighting his own war of vengeance, that being for his species. We learn that there is a virus going round infecting the humans and rendering them mute and primitive, an epidemic that The Colonel intends to stop by executing and burning any and all who are affected. What we see here is a man who recognises that the time for human beings is ending and so has done away with his humanity.
One of the signs of great science fiction is that it provides a reflection of the world as we know it and of ourselves. In War of the Planet of the Apes we see people, humans and primates alike, who are affected by tragedy, pain, and loss and who turn to violence and revenge as an answer, one that inevitably begets more tragedy. We see the fear and aggression that comes with being confronted with that which we cannot understand and with losing our power and control. It isn’t all doom and gloom though. There’s also humour to be found in this film, particularly from Bad Ape who doesn’t understand much of what’s going on. There’s also empathy to be found, this time from the silent Nova and the bond she forms with her simian rescuers. Through her we see the bridge that could be built between the two species, one of compassion and understanding, if only things hadn’t turned out the way they had. This is a great film and it is a great end to a great trilogy.