War for the Planet of the Apes: A Thoughtful, Thought-provoking, Ultimately Moving Exploration of What it Means to be Human

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Editor’s Notes: War for the Planet of the Apes opens in wide theatrical release today, July 14th.

After failing to get moviegoers behind Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox faced a dilemma: Put the Planet of the Apes series into cold storage for the foreseeable future and try again later or ignore the negative reactions and move forward with another sequel. The decision to reboot (again) proved to be one of the smartest choices 20th Century Fox has made in the last decade, possibly longer. With one, then two, and now three films in the rebooted Planet of the Apes series, 20th Century Fox has delivered nothing short of one of the all-time best trilogies, a politically, socially, and culturally resonant trilogy. Collectively, the new Planet of the Apes series also serves as an object lesson on waiting for the right script, the right director, and the right actor before committing hundreds of millions of dollars to a rebooted series or franchises. Other movie studios should take notes and react accordingly.

Collectively, the new Planet of the Apes series also serves as an object lesson on waiting for the right script, the right director, and the right actor before committing hundreds of millions of dollars to a rebooted series or franchises.

But for now, that’s neither here nor there. Right now, it’s War for the Planet of the Apes time and while director/co-writer Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Let Me In, Cloverfield) and his co-writer, Mark Bomback (The Wolverine, Unstoppable, Live Free or Die Hard) don’t deliver a cataclysmic, Hobbesian war of all against all that the tile promises, what do they do deliver is even better: A thoughtful, thought-provoking, ultimately moving exploration of what it means to be human or – in the case of the Planet of the Apes series – what it means to be a self-aware, sentient, super-intelligent simian. The super-smart simians in the series have always represented a funhouse mirror of sorts, a way for moviegoers to see ourselves in an actual “Other,” but as the series, old or new, has repeatedly told us, what we see in that mirror (i.e., our cruel, capricious, arbitrary natures) may not be the equivalent of fun, but it’s certainly meaningful and insightful.

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Caesar (Andy Serkis), a super-intelligent ape created as a side effect of an anti-Alzheimer’s experimental drug, has been the living, breathing, complex center of the new series since Rise of the Planet of the Apes introduced him six years ago. Raised by humans, but finding his destiny as a leader to a mixed-apes tribe who’ve made their home north of San Francisco in Muir Woods, Caesar tried the peaceful coexistence thing with a group of human survivors in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but the darkest impulses and tendencies of both human and ape ended a fragile truce, leaving Caesar and his tribe in a state of near-constant war readiness. In War for the Planet of the Apes, that war finally comes to the literal doorstep of Caesar’s stronghold, an attack by a heavily armed military unit on a seek-and-destroy mission. Caesar and his ape tribe successfully repel the first attack, but a nighttime intrusion led by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), a sociopathic, ape-hating officer, leaves Caesar bereft after heavy losses.

Reeves obsessively keeps the camera’s focus on Andy Serkis’ award-worthy performance as Caesar . . .

Vowing revenge, Caesar abdicates his leadership position of the ape tribe, sending them to a promised land on the other side of the border while he, Maurice (Karin Konoval), an his closest confidante and advisor, Rocket (Terry Notary), Caesar’s personal guard, and Luca (Steve Lang), embark on a journey to find and terminate the colonel with extreme prejudice before he attacks Caesar’s ape tribe or other apes. The Colonel sees himself as a savior or messiah figure, fighting to defeat what he perceives as an existential threat (Simian Flu-carrying apes). That he’s right – the simians do, in fact, pose an existential threat to what’s left of humankind – makes little difference. They’re (we’re) doomed after all. The apes have evolved and continue evolving, the humans have devolved (through diminished numbers and wars amongst themselves) and continue to devolve (losing the power of speech and other, higher cognitive abilities). Along the way to meet the colonel, Caesar encounters a young, recently orphaned girl, Nova (Amiah Miller), and an ex-zoo chimpanzee, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). Nova can’t talk and Bad Ape can’t stop talking.

Bad Ape provides the trilogy-capper with period bursts of much-needed levity and humor, especially when War for the Planet of the Apes drops most of its Western-inspired revenge tropes and turns into a prison escape film modeled after The Great Escape. While the colonel wants to build a wall to keep undesirables out (a nod, intentional or not, to the wall Trump wants to build between Mexico and the United States), Caesar suffers for his sins as well as others (with some crucifixion image spliced in to positive effect). Despite his comfort with big, snow-capped vistas as he is with the greatest visual effect of all time (the human or simian face), Reeves obsessively keeps the camera’s focus on Andy Serkis’ award-worthy performance as Caesar. He gets more close-ups and medium shots as every character, human or simian, gets in the entire film. After all, the apes, not the humans, are the heroes now and Caesar, the first among equals, emerges once again as a (super) hero to his ape tribe. By the final moments, it’s clear Caesar’s story has come to an end, but Caesar’s end isn’t the end of the Planet of the Apes series. It’s just an opportunity for a new beginning, one the ever-expanding fanbase will clearly relish. The series can probably fit in another trilogy before reaching the inevitable end point: a remake of the 1968 science-fiction classic.

9.0 AMAZING

A thoughtful, thought-provoking, ultimately moving exploration of what it means to be human or – in the case of the Planet of the Apes series – what it means to be a self-aware, sentient, super-intelligent simian.

  • 9.0
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About Author

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending New York University as an undergrad (politics and economics double major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco, California, where he's been ever since. Since Mel began writing about film nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.