War for the Planet of the Apes is the grand crescendo to what started as a prequel trilogy to 1968’s Planet of the Apes, painting a portrait of exactly why the apes came to power and how humanity lost its position at the top of the food chain. Few reboots really work out as well as their originals. 2011’s The Thing, 2014’s Robocop, the majority of Alien-themed films from Ridely Scott lately, hell there was even the 2001 remake of Plant of the Apes with Mark Wahlberg and Tim Burton (which was universally panned) all come to mind just for a few examples.
However, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes really shifted the franchise from man-against-ape in a semi-heroic struggle to a sympathetic tale of the apes struggling to survive amid humanity’s self-destructive spiral into extinction. War begins shortly after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with Caesar (Andy Serkis) still managing the fallout of Koba’s rebellion. Apes have defected into human ranks out of both fear of Caesar’s punishment and for fear of the well-armed humans, who have begun an all-out assault against the apes. Caesar, despite his best efforts, is losing his grip on his beloved home he’s fought so hard to keep.
The Caesar we meet is much older, stone-faced and shorter tempered. Battling against the humans and the guilt of Koba’s death still weigh heavily on him, taking away much of the bright-side-of-life he once looked upon. Instead he realizes he shares more in common with Koba than he ever dared realize. This becomes most apparent than ever when Caesar is confronted by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a relentless military leader who ruthlessly hunts the apes with great efficiency.
The Colonel’s special forces are a threat the apes have never faced, and Caesar quickly finds himself outmatched. Frustrated from suffering horrible losses, Caesar wages a reckless campaign against The Colonel joined by his loyal friends Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary). In the midst of this we meet two new characters: the curiously eccentric Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a feral ape who learned to survive on his own and speak English by mimicking humans; and a mute child, Nova (Amiah Miller), who initially orphaned because of the apes, is put into Maurice’s direct care.
Bad Ape in particular, who has inside knowledge of The Colonel and his military forces, turns out to be the most wonderful surprise for the film. He acts both as comic relief, in some of the most charming scenes in the film, and as something of a revelation to the apes that they aren’t the only intelligent apes around.
War for the Planet of the Apes is unapologetically bleak for both parties. The apes have never faced a force so overwhelming, and the humans continue to fight a losing war against nature and themselves. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, while a menacing, really isn’t the true enemy in the film, though he does his best to provide the tough-guy-military vibe. Instead, it’s always been Caesar and his development, in this case becoming his own worst enemy. What Caesar goes through is what his people go through, as he is very much their soul. And in this case, he suffers. A lot.
War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t a summer CGI, slug fest crescendo many might’ve expected from the name and trailers, myself included. Instead it’s a surprisingly thoughtful journey. Caesar, at wits end on how to keep his people safe, is willing to compromise his own judgement in the name of revenge. The humans don’t feel as relatable as Gary Oldman’s and Jason Clarke’s struggle in Dawn, though it is revealed The Colonel is sympathetic in his own right. Ultimately this film is firmly a documentation of the apes’ struggle.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a terrific send off to a very terrific reboot trilogy. This isn’t the end of the franchise though, with word a fourth film is already in the works without director Matt Reeves (who helmed the last two films and is now tied to Ben Affleck’s The Batman). The revelation of Bad Ape subtly changes the game since future sequels can explore the possibility of ape societies that developed away from Caesar’s more benevolent influence, itself leading more into the 1968 original and how humanity falls into ape enslavement.
People may still be riding the Wonder Woman high from a blockbuster perspective, but you would be doing yourself a disservice if you chose to ignore this very powerful film. On the surface it looks like nothing more than a movie about very realistic looking intelligent apes fighting humans, but truly it’s a desperate journey of two different societies on two completely different trajectories. By the end, we are left wondering if humanity’s decline was even something to mourn.