It’s hard to imagine a scenario decades down the road where the modern Planet of the Apes trilogy is neglected to be brought up when discussing the best films of the 2010s.
In an era dominated by the superhero genre, where the merging of smart cinema with popcorn fare yields more misses than bullseyes, these Apes movies – Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn and now War – have managed to strike the most high-wire acts of tonal balances, providing a go-to how-to on how to reboot a classic franchise in the process.
At the same time, it’s elevated Andy Serkis and the potential of motion capture/CGI performances to a higher level of stardom that continues to be underappreciated over the franchise’s run.
With War for the Planet of the Apes, director Matt Reeves has finished what can be confidently called the best sci-fi trilogy since the original Star Wars (go ahead and find a better one, I dare you) and one of the best outright trilogies of the 21st century.
Just look at how far these movies have come since Rise was announced nearly a decade ago. That film would star James Franco in the reboot of a decades-old science fiction cornerstone that has struggled to stay relevant with its admittedly goofy and outdated premise.
It wasn’t supposed to work.
But Rise, it turned out, was better than it had any right to be. A fun summer movie warning of the consequences of playing God amid big-scale set pieces and a new vehicle through which we were rooting against our own kind in Serkis’ monumental Caesar.
For the follow-up, Rupert Wyatt handed off directing duties to Matt Reeves. As a result, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was the franchise’s Dark Knight; a much darker sequel that wasn’t afraid to raise the limits of a concept we thought we were familiar with.
In this case, talking freakin’ apes.
Dawn’s atmosphere was one infused with a sense of paranoia, with the apes and humans questioning what might happen after they discover each others’ existence in a world where it seemed not much more could be lost.
In War, that world now lies on a proverbial foundation of moral ambiguity, one that says (at times pretty explicitly) that now matter how strong we think we are as a species, we’re always at nature’s mercy.
It’s a concept that was explored in the previous two movies, but here it’s front and center. It’s the very nature (heh) of the “war” in question. It’s here to wreck shop.
The start of War parallels that of Rise. The apes are again minding their own business out of sight, supposedly out of mind of what is left of the human race. Only this time, their home isn’t in an enormous tree; they dwell in caves and man-built (ape-built) trenches of sorts.
The apes now know full well the antagonistic capabilities of their former captors, and the sense of dread their mere existence gives them. The fearsome Colonel (Woody Harrelson) has is out to hunt the apes, specifically targeting Caesar who has been in hiding.
That leads to an explosive start for the film, a battle between soldiers and apes that is so well-choreographed and envisioned that it rivals the first 10 minutes of any movie so far this year.
In the aftermath of this and an ensuing, thrilling confrontation with the Colonel himself, Caesar decides it’s time for the apes to leave to a new home much more isolated from the increasingly antagonistic humans.
But Caesar has to get his revenge first.
Among this trilogy’s many accomplishment is the writing and development of its signature character and the many roles he plays, from Messiah to father to Moses and beyond. There have been many points for the scripts to stumble along the way, to turn Caesar into an apathetic anti-hero hell-bent on revenge, or one that makes decisions increasingly at odds with his primary mission: to keep his family safe.
It would have deviated jarringly from his persona in Rise as someone who recognizes his species’ potential as one that, quite simply, deserves more than captivity.
Instead, his character has been handled with the perfect amount of confidence and grace, retaining his humanity while War’s actual humans descend more and more into primitive territory, in ways both subtle and horrifically distinct.
Harrelson, for instance, plays the menacing personality of the ostensibly stock character of the Colonel well enough early on, but it’s when we learn his backstory and motives that we come to understand how desperate the human race has become, and how inevitable its end is.
By the end of trilogy, everything comes full circle; the more sympathetic and level-headed apes are well on their way to becoming the advanced civilization we know from the classic films.
On the way to that conclusion is a thrilling and poignant adventure, one that transcends its sci-fi roots into full-fledged drama that truly tests the limits of its PG-13 rating. Fun isn’t the primary goal here. War for the Planet of the Apes is harrowing and emotional, downright disturbing at times, endearingly uplifting at others.
While the titular concept of war doesn’t play out as many may expect, Reeves explores its complexities and morally gray nature as well as the genre can. A tantalizing soundtrack, one that should be in contention come February, helps cement the morbid, desperate tone.
The film’s new additions to the franchise are scene-stealers. Steve Zahn’s zany, sympathetic “bad ape” provides his own level of intrigue as well as the film’s comedic relief. And, in a year where we already got a terrific mute performance from a young actress in Logan’s Dafne Keen, Amiah Miller provides one that may be even better as the young human that is the best reminder Caesar has of his sympathetic caretaker from Rise.
And Serkis, of course, along with the technical wizards behind the scenes, continues to blur the line between CGI and reality in a performance so captivating that he cements Caesar as one of the all-time iconic characters of the genre.
There’s so much to admire about War and the trilogy as a whole that it’s hard not praise each component individually. But perhaps the best compliment I can bestow upon it is how mich confidence it has in rewriting the rules of various genres, from action in Rise to sci-fi in Dawn to downright drama with this final film.
For modern Hollywood to so consistently nail the broader philosophical reaches of its premise without venturing into full-on cheese territory – and without succumbing to the shadow of the 1968 original – with no big-name directors and the talents of only a couple A-list stars is an astounding achievement. Dawn and War, in particular, are so much more of a slow-burn than any Marvel movie dares to be, but the payoff is more significant.
The evolution of this trilogy, one that no one asked for or thought they wanted to see 10 years ago, from popcorn movie to biblical-level blockbuster is a marvel and an outlier in this age of cinema. Its messages are not to be ignored, having used the best that Hollywood’s technology has to offer to accomplish what the best entries in the sci-fi genre does – comment on our state as a human race, and what it can become if we’re not too careful.
War for the Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval
Directed by Matt Reeves