It’s safe to say that one of the most surprisingly effective revivals in recent years has been with the Planet of the Apes series. Of course, as we all know, the franchise first started back in 1968 with the original Planet of the Apes, a film that became a landmark entry in the sci-fi genre thanks in part to its groundbreaking makeup effects and its iconic twist ending. It was then followed by a string of sequels in the 70’s that varied in terms of overall quality. After that, the original film got a remake in 2001 directed by Tim Burton. However, unlike the original, the remake’s twist ending went over horribly with audiences; thus, due to the film’s mixed reception, plans for a follow-up ended up getting nixed. It wasn’t until a full decade later when the series was revived again, albeit in a much more successful manner. In director Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the ape characters were portrayed via motion-capture instead of the traditional makeup process. It was all led by the king of motion-capture performances himself, Andy Serkis, in the role of genetically enhanced ape Caesar. And thanks to Serkis’ outstanding performance, as well as its groundbreaking visual effects, Rise ended up being one of the surprise hits of 2011. Three years later, director Matt Reeves stepped in to direct the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And overall, many felt that it was one of the rare instances of a sequel that far surpassed its predecessor. Not only were the motion-capture visual effects majorly improved upon, but Reeves also took the strong emotional depth of Rise one step further. In other words, ‘style over substance’ this was not, effectively making it one of the best summer blockbusters of that year. And now, here we are again three years later with the third entry in the new PotA series; War for the Planet of the Apes. Reeves is back to direct and Serkis is back once again as the mighty Caesar. And even after the impressive benchmark that was Dawn, War once again delivers exceptional visual flair that buoys a strongly written story centered around equally strong-written characters.
At the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, genetically-enhanced ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) managed to regain his control as the leader of his group of similarly enhanced apes from his traitorous lieutenant, Koba. However, because of Koba’s actions in that film, tensions between the apes and the humans who had survived the widespread ‘Simian Flu’ virus caused by the experiments that had been done on several of the former (during the events of Rise) were greatly increased. Thus, as War for the Planet of the Apes begins, Caesar and company now find themselves hunted by an elite para-military squadron known as Alpha-Omega, led by a vicious Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who is hell-bent on wiping out all apes so that humanity can regain its place as the dominant species on Earth. Meanwhile, the apes continue to do their best to try and survive in this increasingly hostile world. But when the conflict between the two sides ends up crossing a very personal line, Caesar, along with his loyal lieutenants Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) head out to confront the Colonel and his faction before they can kill any more of their kind. Along the way, they also come across a young orphan girl (Amiah Miller) who they begin to take care of. But as Caesar and his comrades approach Alpha-Omega, they soon find themselves embroiled in a violent and deadly conflict that puts the lives of them and their fellow apes in jeopardy.
As was the case with its predecessors, one of the biggest selling points of War for the Planet of the Apes is its impressive visual effects. The motion-capture visuals for the ape protagonists are better than ever, and just like how its immediate predecessor Dawn upped the ante from 2011’s Rise, War is easily the biggest Planet of the Apes film to date in terms of its scale. Matt Reeves’ direction is just as great as it was in Dawn, providing us with fantastic action sequences that are highly benefitted by the effects and excellent cinematography. But, of course, this film is way more than just pretty visuals. As many others have pointed out, these recent Planet of the Apes films have gone above and beyond in the realm of blockbuster filmmaking when it comes to its story and characters. This very much feels like a natural follow-up to Dawn. Case in point, it only takes place two years after the events of that film whereas Dawn was set over a decade after the events of Rise. Sure enough, the consequences of what happened in Dawn are still felt throughout this film. In fact, a lot of Caesar’s characterization in this film comes from him being haunted by what he did at the end of Dawn when he allowed Koba to die after everything that Koba did to him despite the number 1 rule of their society, ‘ape not kill ape’. Thus, all throughout this film, Caesar constantly grapples with the possibility that he’s starting to act exactly like Koba (i.e. vengeful against humanity). Because of this, War for the Planet of the Apes is easily the darkest entry in the trilogy by far. Through it all, though, we are still given a highly sympathetic bunch of main protagonists to follow as well as a sinister but layered antagonist that ties it all together.
Of course, leading the charge in the film’s great ensemble cast once again is Andy Serkis as Caesar. It’s been said before time and time again and I’ll say it here as well; his turn as the great ape is just as awards-worthy as all the other great performances from this year. All those impressive visual effects never once take anything away from the pure emotion coming out of Serkis’ performance, and as alluded to earlier, this film features what is arguably Caesar’s biggest character arc to date. Thus, it can also be argued that this might just be Serkis’ best performance as Caesar in the entire trilogy. And because of everything that Serkis has done in the business of motion-capture performance work, we also have excellent performances from the rest of the film’s ‘ape’ cast. Of course, there are the series regulars, like Karin Konoval as Maurice and Terry Notary as Rocket, the only two members of the cast (apart from Serkis) who have played the same roles in all three films. But then you also have newcomers like Steve Zahn as ‘Bad Ape’, a former zoo ape who ends up joining Caesar’s group on their journey. ‘Bad Ape’ ultimately provides this generally grim sci-fi war story with some much-needed moments of levity. As for the film’s human characters, this series once again does an excellent job of making them just as well-developed as their ape counterparts. Woody Harrelson’s ‘The Colonel’ is easily the most villainous human antagonist that this series has ever seen. And while he’s not exactly ‘sympathetic’ like Gary Oldman’s character Dreyfus from Dawn was (hell, even Koba was more sympathetic by comparison), he’s still a fascinatingly complex character, thanks in no small part to Harrelson’s excellent and steely performance in the role. Finally, there’s newcomer Amiah Miller in a breakout role as the young girl that Caesar and co. end up adopting. And as it turns out, her character happens to be one of major significance to this franchise; thus, it’ll be interesting to see if she plays a part in possible future installments.
Well, I’ll be damned… it looks like we have a new contender for the best film trilogy in recent years. After Andy Serkis and Rupert Wyatt surprised us all in 2011 with the well-layered sci-fi drama that was Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves then surpassed that with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014. To some, that might seem like an extremely tough act to follow. However, that didn’t stop Reeves and Serkis from damn near reaching that exact same mark with this year’s War for the Planet of the Apes, which might just be the best ‘third installment’ of any trilogy ever (and, yes, I know that’s not really saying much but still…). It’s a natural follow-up to its predecessor, with a storyline that’s tied perfectly to the events of Dawn. This, in turn, further develops the character of Caesar in what ends up being a satisfying conclusion to the overall character arc that he’s had in this trilogy. Pair all this with the reboot series’ greatest strengths, both visually and narratively, and you have yet another summer blockbuster where the writing is just as complex as its visuals. But while they are promoting this film as the end of a trilogy, I’d be interested to see them try and continue from here. Because without giving anything away, they’re inching closer to closer to the scenario that was played out in the original Planet of the Apes, where an astronaut unknowingly crash-lands on Earth after the apes had become the dominant species on the planet. And if they do decide to do another one, hopefully with a lot of the same crew that worked on these last three films, I bet that this hypothetical new take on the story that is Planet of the Apes would be fantastic. Because that’s exactly what this recent PotA trilogy has been… fantastic.