WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is dark. Like, really, really dark. The film is a super-bummer throughout most of its runtime. Darkness is a staple of the APES franchise, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that is a fan of the series, but among the normally lighter fare released during the summer months, WAR feels like a shock to the system.
Director Matt Reeves and company have done something really special with this franchise over the last two films. When RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES came out, the quality of the film surprised a lot of people. Nobody was asking for another APES film – even fans of the franchise were so burned by the Tim Burton disaster, that they were rightly skeptical of another big budget studio APES movie, especially one from 20th Century Fox; a studio that became a whipping boy for fans with their treatment of “geek” properties in the 2000’s.
But RISE ended up being good. Very good, in fact. And it did so not by being a huge action spectacle, but instead by being a lean, scaled down character drama, with an incredible lead performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar; the modern franchise’s main character.
3 years following RISE, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was released, and upped the ante. It was everything a sequel is supposed to be, as it expanded the universe, but still never lost track of the characters the fans of RISE had a connection with. DAWN and RISE work as complimentary pieces of entertainment, both making each other better. DAWN doesn’t work as well as it does without RISE laying the groundwork for characters like Caesar, Maurice, and Koba; and RISE actually improves upon further viewings with the knowledge of where DAWN takes the characters.
All of which leads to WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, a film that takes Caesar and his crew further down even darker paths. Following the events of DAWN, Caesar and his fellow apes have set up camp deep within the woods, hoping that they can escape any further threats from the outside world. That hope is soon dashed when a human militia led by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) storms the apes camp to snuff out Caesar, but instead ends up killing Caesar’s wife and oldest child. From there the plot turns into a revenge-flick, as Caesar is consumed by vengeance in search of the Colonel who killed his family.
As good as Reeves has been the last two films, this trilogy belongs to Andy Serkis and the effects people behind the apes; and WAR is their best performance yet. Caesar is an amazing creation by all involved. You can see the age, and the wear and tear on Caesar’s face in this movie. He’s tired. He doesn’t want to fight anymore. Caesar is looking to find peace within, and with the outside world, but the outside world won’t let him.
There are humans in this one too, but WAR doesn’t focus on them as much, which is a good thing, because the apes have been and probably always will be the most interesting aspect of the franchise. Oh, and also because the humans are really shitty in this one. We’re the bad guys, and WAR goes out of its way to let the audience know that. A lot. And it’s a bit exhausting. There aren’t many sympathetic humans like Jason Clarke, or James Franco in this one for the human audience to latch onto (Ape audiences will find plenty though). We’re pretty much assholes. Except for Nova.
The apes find Nova during Caesar and the crew’s vengeance-fueled trip across the earth in search of Colonel McCullough. Nova is a young girl that is also mute, an affliction caused by a mutation in the infection that wiped out humanity years ago.
I’ve seen some talk on the internet that criticizes the film because there isn’t a female character in WAR with a speaking role. While I don’t agree with this line of thinking, I don’t want to dismiss it completely, because unfortunately I do think there is some validity to it. I don’t agree with this line of thinking for a couple of reasons. First, Lake, the girlfriend of Caesar’s son, speaks throughout the film, but it’s through sign language. Sign language is language, and to dismiss signing as non-speaking is a dick-move, in my opinion. Second, the lack of speaking female characters feels like a conscious decision by the filmmakers. The APES franchise has always focused on the folly of man – emphasis on MAN – leading to the downfall of society. It’s men who have been the leaders over the course of time, and it’s the men in charge that will lead the human race into oblivion.
On the other hand, it would have been nice if this trilogy had a strong female character at some point in it. Most women in the franchise are pushed to the background, or reduced to love interests, and that’s kind of a bummer. Especially for a series as progressive as this one. I think the lack of strong female characters is probably more of an issue with the last two movies, rather than this one though, where the male-dominated world of the film actually works in its favor thematically. A lot of WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES feels like THE THING, but with apes, basically.
One of the men leading the human race into oblivion, is Colonel McCullough played by Woody Harrelson. McCullough is a man obsessed with the apes – and the simian flu he holds them responsible for – to the point of madness. His plot is to round up the apes so that he can use them to build a wall that will keep out the approaching human military who he claims is out to get him. McCullough also has a tragic past, as his son was infected with the mutated version of the simian flu at a young age, robbing his son of what McCullough sees as human being’s divine right of speech and forcing him to sacrifice his own son to “protect humanity”. All of that information is delivered in one overwhelming scene near the midpoint of the film, by the way. It’s a lot to process.
Unfortunately, McCullough is another example of the human characters being the weakest aspect of these movies. While Harrelson is overall more consistent than Franco in RISE – who looks kind of sleepy during most of that film, but delivers in its important scenes – he’s also not as good as Jason Clarke in DAWN. McCullough is a bit of a cartoon at times, something that conflicts with the serious and somber tone of the rest of the film. Harrelson is also asked to deal with scenes that require large infodumps, like the one above, and they never quite hit with the force they’re supposed to. The large exposition dumps are the weakest part of WAR for me, and that’s partly because I never quite bought into Harrelson in the role of an Alt-Right asshole. I don’t want to be too negative, because Harrelson isn’t bad in the role – in fact, it’s probably the best possible Woody Harrelson performance you could get in the role – he just feels miscast.
On the other hand, there is a wonderful new addition to the APES series in this film, and that’s the addition of “Bad Ape” played by Steve Zahn. As I’ve already said probably about 100 times, WAR is a dark film; the bleakest in an already dark trilogy, and the scenes with Bad Ape are a welcome way to lighten the mood. Everybody who plays the apes in WAR does fantastic work, but the perpetually underrated Zahn joins Serkis as a fellow standout in the film. Zahn plays Bad Ape with a simple tenderness that provides a welcome respite from the hard edge of the rest of the film.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is BRUTAL. Have I mentioned how dark it is? The film gets away with scenes of violence in a PG-13 movie that it wouldn’t get away with if the victims were humans; which is such a bizarre thing to say. WAR plays out like a war movie. The apes ride horses while toting machine guns, they get slow motion hero shots, they’re strung up and tortured. The whole thing should be absolutely ridiculousness, but it works. There is a commitment to audaciousness in these films that tells you from the get-go, this is what it is; you’re either in or out.
Where does this trilogy rank among the greats? I don’t know. The JACKASS trilogy is still probably as good as trilogies get, but for me, this one is close. These movies just flat out work, and they do so in different ways. RISE is a smaller scale character study. DAWN is an escalation of RISE, and a drama focusing on a clash between beliefs. And WAR is a brutal war movie, as well as one of the more satisfying conclusions to a franchise that I can think of. As punishing as WAR can be, the film, in its own bittersweet way, ends on a hopeful note, something unusual for a franchise known for its cynical endings. Bittersweet, yet hopeful feels just right for this trilogy though.
Tim Long’s Updated Apes Rankings:
CONQUEST>ESCAPE>WAR>POTA>DAWN>RISE>BENEATH>BATTLE (I love all of these movies other than Battle, and I still like that one quite a bit)