War for the Planet of the Apes Remains a Difficult, Rewarding Watch

War for the Planet of the Apes Remains a Difficult, Rewarding Watch

War for the Planet of the Apes takes Caesar’s apocalyptic story from the previous two films and gives it a focused, heartbreaking finish. We see both humans and apes struggle to survive in this ever-changing world as each suffers greatly, facing new adversaries they seemingly can’t defeat. It’s a poignant, sad, but fitting end to the recent run of Apes movies, setting the stage perfectly for whatever the world has in store over the next 2,000 years.

This week, Fox will release Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, a new film set in the legendary franchise that began in 1968 with Planet of the Apes. Kingdom is a sequel to a trilogy of films that began in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes,which we revisited recently, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which we revisited last week. Later this week, we’ll tackle the new one—but first, let’s see how this trilogy finished up.

Set a few years after the events of Dawn, War picks up in the middle of its title. Humans and apes have been fighting since the end of the previous film and after a particularly brutal battle where over 60 apes die, Caesar (Andy Serkis) attempts to broker peace by letting several of the surviving human soldiers live. In return for their lives, all he asks is they tell their leader, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), that he no longer wants to fight. The Colonel has other ideas, though. He brings the fight right to the apes and kills Caesar’s wife and eldest son in the process.

Caesar showdown.

Filled with rage, Caesar sets off to find the Colonel and end the war, joined by close friends Rocket and Maurice. Along the way the trio meet a strange mute child they name Nova (Amiah Miller) and a solitary ape who calls himself Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). Bad Ape in particular blows their minds because he proves other apes around the world have also, similarly, gotten smarter as they did.

Caeser eventually gets captured by the Colonel’s huge army and learns his entire tribe suffered the same fate. From there, War for the Planet of the Apes is less about war and more about escape as we watch Caesar’s fortitude inspire both sides, and the apes devise a plan to break out.

Along the way, several crucial details are revealed. One is that Nova is mute because the Simian Flu that wiped out humanity has continued to mutate and now a new strain is making humans devolve. They lose their speech and eventually their smarts. We also learn that the Colonel is a rogue leader among the humans and that he uses the captive apes to help him build a wall that’ll shield him from the bigger human army.

Some Apes have changed sides.

In the Colonel, not only does Harrelson deliver a chilling, Marlon Brando-in-Apocalypse-Now-inspired performance, but he also is the one person who sees the future. The Colonel knows that this new mutation of the virus won’t be the end. He knows that humanity is done for, no matter how long it takes, and that the apes will eventually rule the planet. It’s the first time the idea of a full Planet of the Apes comes across in these movies and it’s absolutely chilling.

What’s also chilling is that while Caesar and the apes are clearly the heroes of these films, War forces the audience to grapple with the fact that Caesar is not without his flaws. Haunted by the ghost of his former friend Koba, Caesar struggles with regrets and rage as he hopes to find ways to save his people, especially his youngest and now last son, Cornelius.

Everything builds to what we expect will be a battle of epic proportions only to have that subverted by nature—in this case an avalanche—taking care of everything in one fell swoop. This again is a powerful way to show that no matter what you stand for, what you fight for, or how far you’ve come, it can all be gone in the blink of an eye without you ever expecting it. Nature always wins.

Maurice and Nova.

In the end, the apes do find a way to survive and end up out of the woods they’ve occupied for the 20 or so years over these past few movies. In this new, more forgiving, beautiful land, the apes will continue their world. Then, once they get there, Caeser succumbs to his previous wounds and dies, content in knowing he freed his people allowed them a fresh start.

So too did Matt Reeves give the Apes stories a fresh start. War for the Planet of the Apes doesn’t fulfill the promise of the title in an expected way; it ends up being more about the outside forces at war with everyone on the planet and how each will survive. Here, the apes win, with heavy losses, to live another day. Will all humans succumb to the new strain? We don’t know and, in 2017, we never really needed to. But that we’ll see more in the new film is a testament to the superior storytelling directors Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves, along with writers/producers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, did to give us this new, modern Apes trilogy.

To me, the best of this trilogy is the second one, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Rise of the Planet of the Apes follows that and War for the Planet of the Apes, while still excellent, comes in third. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes opens Friday.

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