Perfect trilogies are a rarity. The steam that builds the momentum of parts one and two has an uncanny knack for running out by the time part three rolls around, leaving a sense of incompleteness and disappointment in the minds of some fans. Whether that’s an effect of narrative dissolution or audience weariness is difficult to say, but either way satisfying finales are too often a tough nut to crack.
That War for the Planet of the Apes manages to be a satisfying capstone to the prequel trilogy is only part of what makes the film feel so special. With its release, audiences have gotten their first perfect trilogy in years—an idea that felt absurd 6 years ago with the release of the James Franco led Rise of the Planet of the Apes. At its heart, War is an engaging and thrilling film that works on its own merits, not just as a conclusion to the story begun two movies ago.
There’s a lesson in there that you’d think Hollywood would finally heed. The best series tell an overarching story in the form of complete unto themselves stories, with each part playing double duty in serving both itself and its bigger picture. Director Matt Reeves, who took over the series with the stunning Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, has managed to keep this in mind, allowing each film in the series to stand on its own beautifully (retroactively making Rise a better film than it was upon its release).
The film finds Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his band of apes living together (strong) in the wake of what appears to be the extinction of humanity thanks to the Simian Flu. It’s been years since humans have been seen by the apes, and the beginnings of their society have finally begun to take root. That all changes when a band of human soldiers attacks their home. Despite a display of mercy and forgiveness, the human leader (Woody Harrelson) seeks the total annihilation of Apekind, with devastating effects. Having had it up to here with these damn dirty men, Caesar launches what he hopes will be a final assault on their dominance.
Reeves manages to balance nuanced themes—the effects of war, the need for peace, the love of family—in a taut, narratively intriguing way. The film is part travelogue—with Caesar leading a small band of committed apes on a revenge mission against the humans—and part jail break film in the vein of The Great Escape. It’s also part Apocalypse Now; as the film progresses, we discover that Harrelson’s The Colonel has gone rogue, pissing off not only the apes but the other surviving humans as well. His level of fanaticism isn’t unlike that other cinematic colonel, Kurtz.
Harrelson is delightfully unhinged as The Colonel, working as the perfect evolution of the sort of anti-ape leader of Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus from Dawn. You understand his point, even if you abhor his methods. This is a man (rightfully) believing he’s witnessing the end of his species and doing everything he thinks he has to in order to prevent that. It’s not easy to create a relatable villain, but Harrelson and Reeves have managed to bring to life one of the better, more fully actualized villains of recent years.
Serkis, as ever, continues to prove why motion capture performances deserve awards consideration, bringing Caesar to life once again with shocking complexity and agency. Against all odds or reason, Caesar has become a movie hero for the ages, no small feat considering he plays the forebear to the villains of the original series.
That’s part of what makes this prequel trilogy so much fun, however. Working as direct prequels to the original series allows them to play around in a sandbox we thought we knew and changes our perspective a little bit on the world inhabited by the apes. This doesn’t always work well—explaining the muteness of the humans in the original series as a byproduct of the Simian Flu feels a touch unnecessary, but even then it works within the confines of this film and this series—but overall the series adds to what we loved about the original rather than detracting from it.
Despite never reaching the heights of its immediate processor (what could?) War for the Planet of the Apes still manages to surprise and delight while bringing this series to a fantastic close. With any luck, the Planet of the Apes series will become the new gold standard for creating both solid trilogies and summer blockbusters. While Hollywood still seems content to dumb it down for mass marketability, this series pushes for consistent evolution. For a summer movie season that has been somewhat lackluster, War for the Planet of the Apes is a definite bright spot.
War for the Planet of the Apes is now playing in theaters everywhere.