Apes Together Strong
War for the Planet of the Apes is directed by Matt Reeves and stars Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson.
Trilogies are all over the place in the film industry nowadays because, for whatever reason, everyone believes that things are best in threes. But what almost never happens is the trilogy has each of its installments of beginning, middle, and end be not only good films on an individual level, but also be better than its predecessors. Rise was a fun and enjoyable film on its own and breathed new life into the Apes franchise. Dawn made the reboot even better by adding much needed emotional substance and enhancing its layered characters. Now comes War, the inevitable final battle between the genetically enhanced apes who look to establish themselves as Earth's new dominant species and the human survivors that are threatened with extinction.
Like Dawn, War for the Planet of the Apes has the look of being an action-heavy, blow-em-up demolition derby. But also like Dawn, the film does not encompass what you think it might. There isn't a moment to describe as full-scale warfare between humans and apes. Instead, the story focuses on the darker instincts of Caesar and what he does when a tragedy strikes him close.
Two years after the events of Dawn, the apes are in the midst of an ongoing war with the human survivors. Caesar's clan is particularly opposed to the military faction known as Alpha Omega (indicated by the Alpha and Omega letters on the soldiers' skin). The conflict is further complicated by how various apes have decided to fight alongside the humans. This is because these apes were former followers of Koba, and they feared retaliation from Caesar after the end of Dawn. Caesar offers peace with the humans if they decide to leave the apes alone. The apes are about to begin a mass exodus to a far-away desert location, as they have suffered heavy casualties at the hands of Alpha Omega. The humans don't leave the apes alone, of course, and attack the apes' home one night. During the attack, Caesar comes face-to-face with the leader of Alpha Omega: a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson). The next day, Caesar decides to forego joining his fellow apes on the journey to their new home and go on a personal mission to track down the Colonel and kill him. Fellow apes Maurice, Rocket, and Luca join Caesar on his mission in which they meet an ape hermit named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and a mute little girl (Amiah Miller) who is later given the name Nova.
War for the Planet of the Apes sends this reboot trilogy off onto a truly high note, and I will say that this reboot trilogy is, without question, one of the best trilogies of the 2000's. Yes, right there alongside Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. With that said, it pains me to admit that I did not find War to be the best film of the trilogy. Now add on the fact that this was my most anticipated film of the year. Hurts even more, doesn't it? As excited as I was for this film and as much as I loved it in the end, I still found Dawn to be better. Not by much, though. I thought Dawn had a more interesting and vicious villain, and after thinking it over enough, that is the difference maker in why I find Dawn to be the best film of the reboot.
But enough about Dawn. War has the world of the Apes reboot in a position where it now must ask the real challenging questions of the apes vs. human conflict and point the ship in a direction from which it cannot return. Its main ape character is now in a spot where he must wrestle with his darker side and make decisions that could have fatal consequences for himself and the other apes. He is haunted by hallucinations that he has of the human-hating Koba, whose anger and hatred towards humans was the catalyst to starting the war.
- The film's thematic depth is a true rarity for a summer tentpole which usually relies on big spectacle CGI effects and a heavy dosage of entertainment value to score a profit. War is especially abundant with its exploration of the very idea of war and peels off the layers to fully examine what it is that brings two opposing sides together in such a conflict. You can find realistic, biographical war films all over the place, and they'll tell you similar themes as those in War. But what is special about War is how it really hits home at the overarching human intentions of war, and the outlook is fresh since we view humans battling not other humans, but a species much like humans: apes. Some might think that the film isn't very subtle with its war-based themes, particularly in how the humans use captured POW apes for slave labor and impose super-harsh conditions on them such as giving them no food or water until Caesar pressures the Colonel and his men into doing so. There are also a lot of disturbing war-based images, such as Caesar witnessing various apes being tortured to death by being tied onto wooden posts with their arms and legs in a position as if they are about to be drawn and quartered. There's another name or phrase for this, but I can't think of it. Anyway, the film finds a lot of moral complexity when tackling its uneasy themes. Action sequences come when necessary, but never to excess.
- The one and only low point of War that kept me from liking it more than Dawn is the villain. The Colonel is made out to heavily resemble Walter E. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. He's bald, he's meant to come off as insane, and he has a lengthy speech scene with the main character in which he discusses issues of war and human nature. Now unlike Kurtz, we don't need to wait until the last half hour of the film to physically see the Colonel. We actually get our first glimpse of him not even 20 minutes in. The soldiers and apes talk a big game of how ruthless and unforgiving that the Colonel is, but outside of something he does in the first 20 minutes, there was barely anything for me to point to and use as evidence to claim that the Colonel is an embodiment of pure evil. The Colonel, at the end of the day, is just a bad human who had to make a couple tough choices to get to where he is now. He lacks the motivations and persona to provide for a proper villain analysis, and I was left wishing to know more about him. Caesar sees Koba in several hallucinations during the film, so tell me how the Colonel is a better villain than Koba when the characters are still discussing Koba one movie later, and Caesar is haunted by the fact that his motivations might now start to align with those of Koba?
So the quality of the villain is what kept me from liking War more than Dawn. Still, War is a mightily strong conclusion to this tremendous trilogy, finding its soul with thematic depth and a memorable moral commentary to go along with its breath-taking effects and adrenaline-filled action. There is no debate that it is not only one of the best films of the summer, but also one of the best films of the year. It is a must-see for any and all fans of the Apes franchise. Where the franchise goes from here is up in the air. I wouldn't have any problems if they decide to stop or decide to keep going. These Apes films always give me something to look forward to in the cinematic year.
Recommend? Absolutely. But make sure you've seen Rise and Dawn first.
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