The original 1968 Planet of the Apes film was a commentary on the racial strife engulfing the United States during the Civil Rights era. It was a year of tension in which Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. The original film framed a story in which humans are not the superior beings on earth, and Charleton Heston’s white patriarch discovers what it’s like to be part of a subjugated race, regarded as lesser, as a threat to the dominant way of life.
The new trilogy, beginning with Rise of the Planet of the Apes has been telling a story of a people in decline. The humans are desperate and weakening. In War, the apes and humans have come to a stalemate, but one desperate human is so terrified of the “other” that he believes only one species can win the fight for survival, and the second race would become second-class citizens. The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is a zealot, and as such, sees all opposition as a threat. And he’s building a wall.
The world that Reeves is building is deeply familiar, which makes it easier to accept a group of apes evolving into thinking, feeling, and sympathetic creatures. Indeed, the trilogy has followed Caesar (Andy Serkis) from birth, to evolution, through his idealistic youth, and through tragedy. The audience is firmly on the side of the apes by this point. The mythology of the Apes series is important to the narrative of War. Caesar is clearly the most advanced, evolutionarily speaking, of the apes. He started with sign language, learned some key words, in Rise he began constructing short sentences. He’s now forming and sharing complete thoughts, and slides easily between spoken language and signing with his friends. His family and community are looking for a place to get away from human interference. He’s also suffering from the stress of leading. Koba is gone, but he haunts Caesar. He haunts his decisions and makes him rethink every choice. He repeats his refrain of, “Apes stronger, together,” but with hesitation.
Caesar’s history is important to the trilogy, and missing the other two films might make War more difficult to understand. But this mythological coherence keeps the films narratively tight. The Apes series isn’t part of a larger universe, it tells an overarching story, that of Caesar’s evolution and ascent.
Of course, we can’t talk about this movie and series without discussing the brilliance of Andy Serkis. Serkis has essentially defined MoCap acting since his major debut as Gollum in the stellar Lord of the Rings series. But in Caesar, he has really brought a character to life. A lot of credit should go to the animation company because the apes are nearly seamlessly woven into the visuals. The only time it seemed to stretch plausible believability was watching one of the Gorillas riding a horse. (He’s too heavy for that horse! He can’t do that!) But Caesar, through Serkis, shows pain, rage, confusion, empathy, and fear through his eyes and how he holds himself. The script is dialogue-light, so the actors must use body language, facial expression, and most importantly, their eyes, to convey emotion and even complex thoughts.
In War, the humans are devolving. The apes find a young girl who has gone mute, and they protect her, but there are no other humans who you could consider “good guys.” The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) has a simple, single-minded purpose, to eradicate the apes. The humans clearly fear the apes becoming the dominant species, and their response is violence. There are no attempts for negotiations in this film, the humans have no room for subtlety, debate, or grey space. I mean, they’re building a wall, it doesn’t get more obvious than that. However, Reeves didn’t allow his movie to just spiral into a series of violent action pieces. He touches instead on Caesar’s reaction of pain, need for vengeance, and his internal conflict of caring for his family and friends but wanting to exact his revenge. He flashes to Koba, is he becoming too much like him to continue to lead? Will his personal demons drive his society to extinction? This internal conflict works from script, to actor, to screen, creating a complex protagonist that the audience can cheer for.
Not that there aren’t wonderful set pieces and action sequences in War. However, those beats don’t feel rote, they feel earned. The fight scenes aren’t just a director throwing two groups at each other without understanding the underlying stakes or ending without consequences or resolution. Instead, the apes are forced to be creative problem solvers, whereas the humans only react with rage, and they feel justified in that anger, because their world has been decimated.
Also deserving of a mention are the score by the almost peerless Michael Giacchino, which manages to further emphasize the emotions that the audience are meant to feel while watching a group of apes take over the world. Additionally, Michael Seresin’s cinematography is beautiful, and done in a way that gives the film a distinct feel while also preserving the essence of its predecessors. These films, with the underlying premise of apes taking over the world, reboots of movies that had people wearing masks, could have been laughably bad. Instead, we got a fantastic trilogy mirroring the fear of a society in decline from a perceived threat that we might have created ourselves.