The previous installments in the Planet of the Apes prequel series – Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – were both very strong films. I admit I found their titles to be a bit misleading; the actual Planet of the Apes has neither risen nor dawned at the end of either film. Not to mention, I felt it would make more sense for ‘Dawn’ to be the title of the first film. But the overall story, intended to take us from the present day to the simian society we know from the original 1968 film, has been handled very well: what began as the accidental consequence of a laboratory experiment has now escalated to a community of intelligent apes fighting for survival against a desperate and diminished human race. According to Wikipedia, a fourth film is planned; but War for the Planet of the Apes still functions satisfactorily as the conclusion of a trilogy, not quite bringing the story all the way to its inevitable conclusion but getting close enough.
Two years have passed since the end of Dawn, when conflict between the apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), and the humans who survived the Simian Flu epidemic, began in earnest. Even as his people are hunted and killed by soldiers, all Caesar wants to do is survive and find a place where his community can live in peace. That changes when the apes’ home is discovered by the leader of their attackers, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), and Caesar himself suffers a terrible personal loss. While most of the apes begin journeying to a safe refuge, Caesar goes in search of the Colonel, hoping both to give his people the best chance of survival, and to get his revenge.
From both the trailers and the title, I was expecting the movie to provide a grand-scale conflict, but this isn’t the case. Most of the first half deals with Caesar pursuing the Colonel, while the rest of the film focusses on various characters being imprisoned and what they do about it. I was a little disappointed about this, and I would have liked more of an indication of what’s going on in the wider world. Only hints are dropped to expand the setting that is presented to us: when Caesar and his allies meet another talking ape named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), they ponder whether there might be more such apes beyond their own community. We also get indications of why the humans are destined to end up the way they are in the original film, without giving too much away.
But aside from getting a bit slow around the second-third act boundary, the story is still a very compelling one, with some powerfully emotional moments as the characters are put through hell and try not to lose hope. There are little details added to make the overall conflict more complex and interesting, such as the anti-ape graffiti around the soldiers’ base and on their helmets, and the existence of ape defectors which side with the humans and are known as ‘donkeys’. (The enemy apes are referred to as ‘kongs’ – get it?) The visual effects used to create the apes, from their expressions to their fur, are just as amazing as ever. And then there are the characters. Since we’re mainly viewing things from the apes’ perspective, most of the humans are simply vicious killers; but we do get one or two more sympathetic individuals, such as a little girl (Amiah Miller) who is adopted by the apes and actually serves a purpose in the story beyond being a symbol of bright-eyed innocence.
The apes – most of whom can only speak with sign language and facial expressions – get a lot more development and diversity, from Caesar’s loyal lieutenant Rocket, to the eccentric and somewhat cowardly Bad Ape, to the wise and thoughtful orang-utan Maurice. But as with the previous two films, it’s ultimately Caesar’s story – and once again, it’s quite a different arc from what we’ve already seen. Rise covered his origins and how he was moulded into the being that he is. Dawn saw him struggling to maintain peace with the surviving humans while also trying to do what was best for his own people. Now, with his people at war, his responsibilities as a leader have only increased; and he’s on a quest for vengeance too, which forces him to start looking inward and questioning his own morality.
While War for the Planet of the Apes may not live up to the escalated scale that its title suggests, it’s still a very good film – with a solid story, characters and themes – that stands on the same level as its predecessors. So if you liked those, you should like this one too. Rating: 4/5.