War for the Planet of the Apes

Imagination creeps into the trilogy’s finale

It began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, followed three years later by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: the first two films of a trilogy based on the successful Planet of the Apes film series of the ’60s and ’70s. The original classic, from 1968, starred Charlton Heston as an astronaut who ends up on a planet where apes are the dominant species and where humans, who can’t talk, are treated like animals. We eventually learn that the astronaut has returned to a future Earth. The new trilogy provides its own explanations for how apes learned to talk and how humans nearly wiped themselves out and lost the ability to talk.

Its special effects are extraordinary, the cinematography is awesome, the score is splendid, the writing is notably intelligent, and it has by far the best cast of characters in the trilogy.

In this year’s finale, War for the Planet of the Apes, we find Caesar (played by Andy Serkis), the first of the speaking apes, along with the apes who follow him, searching for a home far away from the few remaining human populations—somewhere they can live in peace. This doesn’t sound like the start of a war film, but the title of this relentlessly dark and violent film is more than apt, because War for the Planet of the Apes is all about war from beginning to end: war between humans and apes, between humans and humans, and even a little between apes and apes.

On the positive side, as in Dawn, war is never glorified in War for the Planet of the Apes. And, despite its presence throughout, war isn’t even the primary theme of the film. For me, at least, that theme would be survival: Who will survive the chaos following the pandemic caused by the humanmade retrovirus and inherit what’s left of the planet?

Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) is the man at the “heart of darkness” (he is very obviously supposed to remind us of a certain other colonel—Kurtz—who went mad in the jungle, as portrayed in Apocalypse Now, which is itself an adaptation of the novella Heart of Darkness). McCullough is obsessed with wiping apes off the planet before they take over the world. To start his war with the apes, he does something horrible that Caesar, who wanted only peace, cannot let slide (that is, Caesar can only think of revenge).

At this point in War for the Planet of the Apes, I was shaking my head as I recalled my key complaint about the first two films of the trilogy, namely the utter failure of imagination exhibited by the endings of those films. Specifically, you have characters who do horrible things so that they become dehumanized as evil villains who need to pay for their crimes, preferably in a gruesome death at the hands of one of their victims (who is bent on revenge). This is what happened in both Rise and Dawn and it is typical of Hollywood action films.

But when Caesar shares his plans with Maurice (Karin Konoval), the wise orangutan at his side, Maurice tells Caesar he is no better than Koba, the “bad” ape from Dawn who was bent on revenge. This is new, I thought, a realization that the “good” characters are in some ways no better than the evil ones. Perhaps some imagination is creeping in. Caesar doesn’t argue the point, but unfortunately, he isn’t swayed by it either. Which means that Caesar goes looking for trouble, and finds it. But finding it requires a journey, along which he and his closest advisors will meet two very unique characters who will have key roles to play in the war that follows.

One of these is a young human girl (Amiah Miller) who has lost her ability to speak and whom Maurice won’t allow Caesar to leave behind; the other is a young speaking ape (Steve Zahn), called “Bad Ape,” a name given to him by humans. Bad Ape provides much of the film’s comic relief, something dearly needed in this dark film. These two characters are at the heart of the film’s many attempts at humanization (something that is a strong feature of all three films) and provided another sign of an uncharacteristic imagination.

I won’t say much more about the plot (that is, how the unique war unfolds) other than that it goes to some very dark places (I was surprised by the film’s PG-13 rating). The trilogy’s ongoing message that war is pointless and evil, combined with its strong messages of humanization and the power of love, could have made these three films the classics many critics claim them to be. Unfortunately, what has plagued the trilogy ever since the last half of Rise is that its messages are mixed. For every “person” who is humanized, another is dehumanized (so they can be killed off). For every challenge to the myth of redemptive violence (and there are many), there is a defense of the myth. For every brilliant piece of social commentary, there is an undermining of that commentary. War for the Planet of the Apes is no exception to this.

Nevertheless, what sets War for the Planet of the Apes apart from its predecessors is that its negative messages are clearly outweighed by its positive messages, and the film doesn’t end in a predictable way, the way demanded by Hollywood’s allegiance to the myth of redemptive violence. Instead, consistent and amazing displays of imagination continue until the final scene, making War for the Planet of the Apes by far the best film in the trilogy.

I say this before even noting that its special effects are extraordinary, the cinematography is awesome, Micael Giacchino’s score is splendid (if a little overwhelming), the writing is notably intelligent, it has by far the best cast of characters in the trilogy, and the performances by Serkis, Harrelson, and Zahn are terrific. I also appreciated the many subtle references to the original 1968 film. War for the Planet of the Apes almost warrants watching the entire trilogy (which should be accompanied by lots of discussion), but remember my warning about it being a dark and violent film.

War for the Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.