“That perfected machines may one day succeed us is, I remember, an extremely commonplace notion on Earth. It prevails not only among poets and romantics but in all classes of society. Perhaps it is because it is so widespread, born spontaneously in popular imagination, that it irritates scientific minds. Perhaps it is also for this very reason that it contains a germ of truth. Only a germ: Machines will always be machines; the most perfected robot, always a robot. But what of living creatures possessing a certain degree of intelligence, like apes?”
Don’t you just love when you’ve waited so long for something and when it finally arrives, it’s totally satisfying? Yeah, I love that, too.
Feels like I’ve waited years for War for the Planet of the Apes, because I have! I’ve wanted to see this sci-fi franchise reboot come this far and be this self-referential since I first saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Though there are marked differences between the three films in the trilogy, there’s a lot of consistency in tones, concepts, themes, and especially characters which makes them so gratifying.
I’m going to talk SPOILERS for the three films, but only in general terms, in terms of premises. I won’t talk specific spoilers for the third and most recent film unless otherwise stated.
Rise, directed by Rupert Wyatt, was the brightest and most conceptual of the films, with a lot of heart. It measures the last time our ape hero had a close connection to humanity. I love conceptual science fiction more so than the gobbledeeguck of sci-fantasy films or the explosiveness of summer blockbuster sci-fi. Frame a film around an idea and you’re almost guaranteed to have something thought provoking, whether you agree with the filmmakers or not. In Rise, we were introduced to Caesar, the child of a chimp that was being experimented on with a drug, ALZ-113, that was designed to be the cure for Alzheimer’s. The drug ended up making Caesar extremely intelligent and when he escapes and drugs other apes with the mind-altering substance, there’s the first of confrontations between the advanced apes and humans. The apes escape into the nearby forest outside of San Francisco. Exposure to the drug that made the apes intelligent is fatal among humans and when an infected airplane pilot travels the world, he accidentally creates an epidemic of global proportions.
Dawn, directed by Matt Reeves, is the dark “middle film” that feels the bleakest and grittiest of the three. It’s set ten years after the outbreak of the Simian Flu, which has cut down vast swaths of the human race. Survivors immune to the epidemic have gathered in city fortresses and one such group comes into contact with Caesar and his apes, who have established a colony in the forests. They’ve begun to read and write, using ASL to communicate, though some of them are capable of vocalizing English. Caesar finds himself torn between cooperating peacefully with the benign humans while sedition rises within his ranks thanks to a scarred ape named Koba, who hates humans. There is an even more powerful conflict between the humans and the apes, and between Caesar and Koba, and Dawn feels the most morally ambiguous of the films because of the heroes and villains among both the apes and the humans.
War, also directed by Matt Reeves, feels very much like a bookend kind of a film (though a fourth Apes film has already been announced), with satisfying closure tying up themes and arcs. It’s also an immensely powerful, emotional, and brutal film. It is occasionally as dark as Dawn but there’s the brightness of kindness, hope, community, family, and mercy throughout it reminiscent of the humanity in Rise. War is also less morally ambiguous than Dawn since the “sides” are more clearly defined: the heroes are the apes (from the audience’s perspective) and the villains are the human survivors. There isn’t any main human character here that ever becomes a real ally like Franco’s character in Rise or Jason Clarke’s character in Dawn. I don’t see Nova as a main character.
The film opens after the events of Dawn which saw the apes conquer the nearby humans in San Francisco, a conflict which Koba (who is now dead) instigated out of hate. A cult-like military faction has arisen, identified by the Grecian letters Alpha and Omega, and the faction has managed to cause some apes to defect from Caesar’s group and fight against them. The humans call these traitor apes “Donkeys”, which was instantly my favorite part of the film, being a gamer.
Alpha-Omega attacks Caesar’s group in the forest, causing several fatalities, though the apes fight them off and take a few prisoners. Caesar reaffirms that he didn’t start this war and he chooses to set the prisoners free out of an act of mercy. The apes begin to form their plans to relocate to a desert away from the militant humans but before they can, they’re attacked by the Colonel, a powerful cult-figure leading Alpha-Omega. Caesar is swept up into a war that now becomes his own and the film fixates on his struggle with inner-demons (symbolized by visions of Koba) and his insistence upon mercy. Does he choose vengeance against the Colonel over his responsibility to his colony? Will he choose anger over leadership? Can the apes survive the oppression of a human army under its charismatic leader? What will the fate of humanity be with the Simian Flu mutating?
War is as good of a film as it is first and foremost because of Andy Serkis. Serkis has played Caesar since Rise and he’s successfully taken the character through every perceivable emotion, creating a conflicted, impassioned hero and family “man” who is often unsure about what to do and how best to lead, a complex character who is wearied with conflict and emotionally exhausted, a pacifist but a father determined to do all that is necessary. Caesar is one of those characters that is the polar opposite of a cardboard cutout. There’s not a moment in the films when you can’t see into his heart and understand the inner turmoil, empathize with it even if it’s not your own. Through Caesar, Serkis has demonstrated that he’s capable of channeling with genuine sincerity the most fundamental of human emotions, decimating the portrayals of actors as human characters by comparison.
Serkis is the leading name in motion capture performance and he has spearheaded the technology as a viable and respected acting medium, which should earn him a place in art history. In my opinion he must receive an Oscar for his portrayal of Caesar (though I highly doubt that’ll be the case given the Academy’s snobbish disdain for sci-fi, fantasy, or anything other than dramas nobody saw). Serkis’ performance is one of the most resonating and moving I’ve seen in any film, and the fact that he managed to capture tearful anguish, intense anger, reluctant resoluteness, fear in weakness, horror, the weight of relief, and tenderhearted, familial love through having little dots drawn on his face, through the subtle mastery of the muscles of his face, indeed of his entire body, is a testament to that fact that his performance is unsurpassed by no one else in motion capture at this point in time.
This is an example of an actor giving everything he’s got for a role, and it comes across by reaching out of the screen, reaching into your chest, and gripping your heart in a hairy, simian fist.
One of the things which left me most delighted were all of the references and nods back to the original Charlton Heston Planet of the Apes from 1968, one of my all-time favorite films. Talk about science fiction! You don’t complain about there not being enough action scenes when the world-shaking ideas of Planet of the Apes are brought to fore.
The following are some specific SPOILERS for War for the Planet of the Apes, so Ctrl+f 8-bit Review if you want to skip down to Visuals. Anyway, the way that War closes out leaves you in a place where you can make easy conjectures to how the planet becomes the one that the astronauts land on in the original Planet of the Apes years in the future. Remember, also, wonderfully, that there was a spaceship that launched (according to headlines) in Rise before being lost in space. Fingers crossed that that means we’re going to see a modern retelling of the astronauts landing on the planet some 2,000 years in the future!
Here are some of the specific ways War leads up to the original Apes film:
- The apes find their way into the desert at the end of War to escape the humans. In the original, this is where their cities are.
- The Simian Flu mutates within the immune humans, turning them into primitive mutes. The Colonel suggests that this will turn humans into cattle for a race of intelligent apes, and he’s right, since that accounts for the human savages in the original film.
- Caesar’s fate at the end of the film with his death and self-sacrifice, his powerful leadership over the apes and becoming their savior, ensures that he will become their mythic hero.
- The chimps becoming the most intelligent of the apes, eventually becoming scientists and researchers, can be seen in the blueprints of wily intellect in Rocket, one of Caesar’s companions, who tricks the humans into catching him so they can begin to plot their escape from Alpha-Omega.
- The orangutans in the original were the political and religious leaders of the ape race, like Dr. Zaius, and the seeds of that outcome can be seen in Maurice’s character who vows to tell Caesar’s story (eventually Caesar’s legend) to the coming generations.
- The gorillas becoming the solider-caste in the original isn’t too hard to see not merely because of their physical power but also because of the example of the gorillas changing the course of the film in War: example, Luca saving Caesar’s life and losing his own, and then later in the film the traitor gorilla does the same thing.
- It’s a small detail but the new character Bad Ape is seen to wear clothing, something which Caesar rejected in Rise. Since Bad Ape survives to the end of the film, presumably he helps influence the ape race to begin wearing clothing. The ape garments in the original film do in fact resemble his blue vest.
- After the apes are captured by Alpha-Omega, some of them are “crucified” on jagged trunks of wood formed like giant X’s. These are exactly the same as the warning signs that the apes will later use to mark the border of the forbidden zone in the original film. They obviously drew from a symbol of horror and pain in their own history.
- The darkness of Koba’s heart, his hatred and cruelty toward humans and even other apes, is something that Caesar barely shakes during the course of War, but its a mere shadow of things to come in an ape society that is violent and cruel toward human cattle.
As for nods, you certainly can’t miss the little mute girl (her voice taken away by an advanced strain of the Flu). Turns out they name her Nova, which was the same name that Heston’s character, Taylor, gave to a primitive mute in the original film. Also, one of Caesar’s sons is named Cornelius, the same name as Roddy McDowall’s character in the original film.
Any more that you noticed? I’m more than curious to hear about it!
Now, all of the pieces are here. For classic science fiction fans, War for the Planet of the Apes is a true delight in concept, in tone, and in Easter eggs. I wonder if on a second viewing I’ll spot a Statue of Liberty nod tucked away somewhere!
The 8-bit Review
Watch Rise, Dawn, and War in order and you get a sense of the brilliant evolution of technology. With War, we’re talking about a movie where every character of note is computer generated except for two: the Colonel and the soldier whose life Caesar spares. That’s pretty mind-blowing when you think about it. The previous two films in this trilogy had human characters with good natures whose lives we saw into without seeing them through the eyes of the apes. Not so here, therefore a lot is riding on the success of the technology being able to convey the performances of the mo-cap actors.
Fortunately, the technology is now so good that I didn’t think of the apes as computer generated once during the film. This movie knows how to handle lighting. Lighting the apes with all of their different shapes, with all of the erratic movements of their fur, is just stupefyingly good in every scene of the movie. The weather effects, flakes of snow landing on wet fur… this is some of the best CGI you’ll find in cinema history, impressive not in a kind of gaudy aim to impress, but in its sheer realism.
The cinematography also deserves praise for the dramatic shots of environments. I let out a satisfied sigh at one point when Caesar and his companions are riding horses across a deserted beach at sunset. The scale of shots like that, taking in the entirety of a scene with slow curiosity, similar to the first confrontation between the apes and the humans at the start of the film, is a mark of this film. That, and the intense closeups. This movie is about taking in the scenery and taking in the eyes, it works on a macro- and on a micro-scale.
One thing I didn’t care for were a couple of angle transitions. They do this slow fade-in more than once and it struck me as a little cheesy. Actually, it somewhat ruined my immersion during the final moments of the film when the transition is extremely slow, so slow I thought they were just showing two images over each other and they were going to close out like that, like an awkward family photo. This is this only stain on an otherwise visually immaculate film!
I thought the music was more than serviceable and the theme of the trilogy was recognizable when it needed to be. The score does a great job at dialing in the emotions that the filmmakers intended us to feel, even if at some points in the film the music can seem a little too heavy-handed and transparent in this respect. One example is a familiar motif, used twice that I can remember, when the “rising arpeggio on the harp” cliché
To avoid story SPOILERS for this film, please hit Ctrl+f and search Family Friendliness to skip the Narrative and Themes sections.
War is a powerfully emotional film and I fought back tears at one point. Hitting on beats like Caesar’s fatherhood and the loss of his family resonated with me, a new father for about two years. As the third film and one which ends with some finality, the emotional properties of War are perfectly positioned.
The film centers around Caesar’s loss after his firstborn and his mate are killed by the Colonel and Caesar leaves his colony to hunt down the man that murdered his family. He commands his apes to make their way to the desert, away from the humans, but three of his closest companions, Rocket, Luca, and Maurice, insist on accompanying him to ensure his safety.
They encounter a girl rendered mute by an advanced form of the Simian Flu. Having killed her father in self-defense moments earlier, Maurice shows his compassion by opting to take the girl (later named Nova) with them on their mission, lest she die all alone. Caesar begins to be haunted by the apparition of Koba, symbolic of the growing hatred in his heart for the humans.
Caesar and co. encounter an intelligent ape none of them recognize, who calls himself Bad Ape, and they also discover that the humans are killing their own who begin to show signs of the advanced Flu. They are all eventually captured by Alpha-Omega and the apes are forced to build a wall for the militant group while Caesar suffers under the will of the Colonel.
Rocket, Maurice, and Bad Ape (Luca having died earlier trying to save Caesar’s life) create a plan to help the apes escape from their prison as Alpha-Omega prepares to face down a large enemy force of humans come to destroy their cult. The apes barely get out as the war between the human factions takes place and Caesar gets his chance to exact revenge on the Colonel, a man who had killed his own son when he showed signs of the advance Flu. But Caesar chooses to walk away instead of kill the Colonel, and the man dies by his own hand. Caesar doesn’t choose to build his race’s future on a foundation of blood. The rest of Alpha-Omega is wiped out and an avalanche destroys the opposing human faction.
The surviving apes are once again free and they and the girl Nova travel together to the desert to begin a new world. There, with the future of his people secured, Caesar succumbs to his wounds and dies beside Maurice, who swears to tell Caesar’s story for the coming generations. It’s the perfect close to a great trilogy and in bringing Caesar’s life to a close, it’s this perfect monomyth cycle.
I was very pleased to see Caesar’s “last temptations” take the form of a test of will and of his leadership. After the apes are captured, it’s Caesar’s determination and dedication to the well-being of his colony that stands against the Colonel. Their confrontation isn’t a battle of physicality, resulting in some kind of “boss fight” action scene. Their final moments together as hero and villain are intensely emotional but not purely physical.
Caesar demands food and water for his apes while the Colonel demands they get back to work on his wall (un-politicized by the film itself, thank you very much). Neither one is willing to budge at first and when the two of them stare into each others’ faces searching for any sign of weakness, it’s at that moment that you understand the nature of this final conflict between the human race and the intelligent apes. It’s a battle of wills. That seemed very refreshing, unique, and it made for a lot of character tension between the two leaders.
Mercy is one of the film’s forefront themes. Caesar has lived his life with mercy as the mark of his leadership until extreme circumstances forced him to defend himself against Koba and take his life in Dawn, and until his own family members are murdered by the Colonel in War. Caesar has always been about this internal struggle, about frustration with choosing the right path.
Though Caesar wants the war to end, it becomes personal for him when his family is killed, his youngest son Cornelius being the only survivor. His virtue of mercy is put to the test, under fire since the merciful act of sparing the soldiers’ lives at the beginning of the film leads to his great loss. Of course, mercy is always the considerable action, and since we can’t predict the future or know the outcome of our acts of mercy, there’s no way we can guess whether our acts of mercy will lead to a bad outcome or a good one. Caesar couldn’t know that but I’m glad that in the end he chose mercy again, anyway, rather than to inflict his hate upon the unarmed Colonel in his weakest moments. Caesar’s example of being merciful to our enemies is one which is pretty rare in filmmaking.
The movie also abounds with Christian imagery. There’s a juxtaposition between the religious surface-level imagery (dogma) of the Alpha-Omega faction and Caesar’s final days of life. The Alpha Omage faction exhibits imagery such as their choice of symbolism, the Colonel’s cult-like control over his men. The Colonel even waves the figure of the cross over his unit in one scene where they’re chanting up at him. He’s deliberately (and maybe honestly) using religion as the opiate of the masses to maintain control. This is precisely what leads to his faction’s downfall when the other human force comes down like a sledgehammer on his rule.
Caesar on the other hand demonstrates a real Christ-like heart of suffering love, rather than merely adopting a kind of liturgy and lip-service to these ideals. Consider Caesar’s innocence through virtually the whole film. Caesar wrestles against the temptations of a devil-figure with the memory of Koba. Caesar is shown in a very crucified-like pose when captured and tortured by the Colonel. Caesar puts himself in harms way rather than see his own people be brutalized and punished. Caesar becomes the final liberator, the savior and Messiah-figure of his people. When Caesar is in his cage and Nova brings him water I thought of Matthew 25:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’“
Finally, when Caesar dies, it’s from a wound in his side. I doubt that this kind of character-symbolism wasn’t deliberate.
Family Friendliness: 7/10
This is a pretty violent movie. That’s evident right from the start. However, there’s much less harsh language than in Dawn and because the film is more emotionally focused on personal issues rather than on the epic scale that its title would seem to promise, it’s a highly accessible film that won’t go over the heads of any comparatively younger viewers. That’s true of this film more so than both Dawn and Rise, I’d think.
Some of the promotional material seemed to depict this film as some kind of huge epic but in reality, as mentioned just above, it’s a more intimate film with only a few characters. At the forefront of course is Serkis, whose tremendous energy in this role I’ve already praised to high heaven. I mean, look at the degree of sadness in this one expression.
The other members of the cast are all exceptional. The motion capture performances are very believable and they managed to convey different personalities through all of that tech. Maurice was a fan favorite, at least with this fan.
I was glad that the two newcomer characters, Nova and Bad Ape, weren’t given these massive roles that are all up in your face. It would’ve been easy to try to hang all of the emotion on the frail little girl by constantly putting her in danger. Instead they made her a beacon of selflessness by the film’s darkest moments. As for Bad Ape, he’s comedic relief in what’s otherwise a pretty joyless film, but they managed to make him likable rather than merely a klutz. What sets him apart from something like Jar Jar Binks is the integrity of the actor’s performance.
The other standout performance was by Woody Harrelson. Now I’ve seen this dude in a lot of comedies but the man can channel some serious intensity. When he drives himself to tears recalling how he saw the trust in his son’s eyes right before shooting him when he was suffering the advanced Flu, it’s one of the film’s highlights. As the villain, Harrelson commands a presence that’s palpable through the screen. He seems like a giant of a man and as immovable as a steel door, until those moments when the last shreds of his humanity shine through. By the time of the events of War, Harrelson’s Colonel is no longer a man, having buried his feelings as deep as possible. The Planet of the Apes series has always flirted with the question of who are the most “human” and who are the “animals”, and the twin leaders Caesar and the Colonel and their conflict illustrate the varying differences.
Certainly this is what this franchise has always been about when it’s examined issues of cruelty, animal rights, warfare, greed, religious control, and so on. Here, the Colonel is the human exhibiting things like territorial dominance and herd mentality, whereas Caesar is the animal exhibiting things like mercy, forgiveness, and acceptance.
How many Planet of the Apes films are there now? Nine with a tenth on its way. Despite the franchise’s long-running history, War still manages to feel fresh thanks to the depiction of its characters. Even if they never made another Apes film ever again, the reputation of this series would be immortal thanks to War.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you reboot a film franchise. You don’t slather it with cheap CGI thrills and sweaty, sexy but unproven young actors. You identify a narrative core and science fiction concepts and then drive your characters forward to the absolute brink of despair, refining and defining them. You allow these characters and the actors’ performances to shine through and be the anchor for a film in a radical and unfamiliar world. The draw of sci-fi needs to be its concepts and its characters. Everything else is fluff.
I highly recommend this one, especially for fans of the original movie.
Aggregated Score: 8.8