Apes. On. Horses. With. Guns.
I never thought we’d be here. I’m not sure who could’ve thought we’d be here. After Tim Burton took on Planet Of The Apes, most people thought the franchise would have to remain dead.
Then, out of nowhere, Rupert Wyatt and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes left us all pleasantly surprised. Next, Matt Reeves was brought on to Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes partway through production, and it managed to be even better.
This isn’t the franchise that could. This is the franchise that shouldn’t have been able to and still somehow did.
Matt Reeves (who is currently tackling The Batman) returns for the third installment in this current Apes trilogy, but he gets a full pre-production cycle this time around, meaning he had three years to work on War instead of the two years he had on Dawn.
An undisclosed amount of time has passed since Dawn, which ends on the knowledge that more troops will be coming to hunt the apes, and that’s exactly where we start. A military faction known as Alpha-Omega is approaching the apes’ hideout with the help of several traitor apes (referred to as donkeys, and used as such), but they are overrun. Several surviving soldiers are taken to Caesar (Andy Serkis), who demands that they tell their leader that all he wants is peace, and their safety is a sign of that. As the soldiers are sent away, the apes discuss a plan to escape to the desert before the soldiers decide to retaliate.
Caesar sits in his room with his wife and two sons asleep when he sees a peculiar green reflection through the waterfall they sleep behind. He goes to summon the patrolling apes to check it out quietly. More Alpha-Omega soldiers have found the base and are trying to initiate a sneak attack. The apes ambush one of the soldiers, but hear a voice on his radio claim that Caesar has been killed and they can leave now. Caesar, noticeably present in this scene, washes over with horror and takes off towards his family. His wife and oldest son, mistaken for him, have been killed, and a man known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) stands on the edge about to escape. Caesar dashes toward him, dodging bullets and jumping onto his rope, but the rope gets cut and he is sent towards the water below.
We learn that Caesar’s youngest son was able to hide, which brings some relief. He tells the apes that they are all to begin the trek to the desert, but they are to do it without him. He takes off on a revenge mission to kill the Colonel, but he is followed by Maurice the orangutan, Luca the gorilla, and Rocket the chimpanzee, his closest allies.
THAT WAS ALL WITHIN THE FIRST THIRTY MINUTES OR SO, MEANING THAT THE REST OF THIS CAN BE CONSIDERED SPOILER TERRITORY
Along their journey, they come upon a small base of soldiers and a recently defected ape named Winter. They confront Winter and demand all the information they can get, but they have to silence him when he tries to alert the soldiers of their presence. This event causes Caesar to worry if he is becoming like Koba, which brings him bad dreams. They also find a seemingly abandoned base shortly after, but are forced to kill a man who raises a gun to them. It turns out that his daughter is also here, and she is apparently mute. Maurice refuses to leave her behind, so he becomes her new protector as they head out.
Their next discovery is in the form of Bad Ape, an ape who has gained the ability of speech while being entirely separate from Caesar’s group. He explains the “human zoo” that he had seen, where people were kept while succumbing to the Simian Flu. Caesar demands to be taken there, which Bad Ape reluctantly agrees to do after hearing about the attack on Caesar’s family.
As they approach the base, they are spotted by an Alpha-Omega patrol and Luca is killed in the fight. Caesar sends his allies away and decides to enter the base alone. He is almost immediately captured, where he learns that his entire group of apes that were leaving for the desert were captured shortly after he left them. The adult apes are being forced to build a wall for the Colonel and are doing so without any food or water. The Colonel brings Caesar into his office and explains that the Simian Flu has evolved to the point that affected humans are slowly starting to lose their speech and reverting to a more primitive behavior, which explains a previous scene where Caesar discovers three soldiers that were shot because they stopped speaking. We learn that the wall is also to defend him from other humans, as the rest of the military strongly disagrees with his actions since they believe there’s still a cure for the Simian Flu.
Caesar is tortured via starvation, but the young girl (now called Nova) sneaks into the base and gives him some food and water. In order to save her, Rocket deliberately gets himself caught, and she is able to escape. With Caesar and Rocket inside and Maurice and Bad Ape outside, the four start to devise a plan to break the apes out of their prisons via underground tunnels.
The plan is a success, and after all the children are saved, Caesar goes after the Colonel one last time. He finds the Colonel’s office in disarray and discovers him drunk in bed, unable to speak. To save his enemy from his greatest fear, Caesar leaves him a pistol and he takes his own life. As this happens, soldiers enter the room to retrieve their leader while the base is attacked by the approaching military. Caesar escapes the room and attempts to blow up the base from the inside to protect his fellow escaping apes, and he is even assisted by one of the traitorous gorillas. After escaping the base, the apes are forced to also survive a massive avalanche, which takes out the military.
The remaining apes arrive at their destination, where Caesar reveals to Maurice that he suffered a fatal crossbow shot and has been slowly bleeding out. Maurice assures him that everyone will know who he was and what he stood for.
AND THAT’S THE END OF THE FILM, WHAT A RIDE. SPOILERS ARE DONE.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another example, which means that War For The Planet Of The Apes and the entire Caesar Trilogy might be the only time where a film trilogy has improved with each subsequent film. Third films are typically weak and crumble under the weight of the arc, but War is substantially the strongest of the bunch. The extended focus on Caesar and his arc is the entire reason that any of the films have worked as well as they did, and the audience truly feels like they know him by now.
The only way to get the audience to relate to and root for the apes is by making them relatable, obviously, but you can’t do a better job of that than by having Andy Serkis as your lead. The fact that Serkis is no longer a well-kept Hollywood secret and that everyone now knows just how unbelievably talented he is as a motion capture performer is so delightful; if only he could find some recognition on a bigger stage. Wink wink.
While the tone is fairly serious and somber overall, Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape is a welcome addition to the cast and the levity he is able to bring really helps the audience throughout the last act. He isn’t a straightforward comedic character, as his backstory is tragic as well, but his reactions to the prison escape plans (usually a simple “oh nooooo”) is enough to get a solid and well-deserved laugh from the tense crowd.
That extra year for the production that Matt Reeves got clearly payed off, from the script process all the way through the edit. War is easily the most cinematic of the three modern Apes films, and I suddenly am slightly less nervous about The Batman, even if the constant coverage is still fairly worrying.
Similar to what I said about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (I know, weird transition, but follow me), this film has no right to be as good as it actually is. It could’ve taken a nice and easy path to being perfectly fine and adequate, and most people would have been pleased enough. The fact that it IS as good as it is has been remarkable, and I never would’ve guessed that I’d like this Apes film as much as I do.
If Matt Reeves wants to make a fourth one, which it sounds like he does, I’ve already bought my ticket.
War For The Planet Of The Apes: 8/10