Looking back at 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the latter two films are strikingly different to the origin story that came before it. Whereas Rupert Wyatt used Caesar (Andy Serkis) to show the evils of man and how we treat our animal companions on Earth, it was really James Franco’s movie with much of the story revolving around his character’s struggles with the ethics of science and his own moral quandaries. Sure, we got to see Caesar ultimately break out of his confines and start the ‘ape revolution’ at the film’s end but perhaps it’s telling that it took the subsequent Simian Flu and the decimation of a significant portion of the human population for the filmmakers to take the hint.
This is Caesar’s story.
War for the Planet of the Apes uses this aspect to its advantage by drawing upon the characters that we have come to know and love from the previous two instalments. When we rejoin Caesar and his ape colony they are fully engaged in combat with a new human threat, a result of the treacherous Koba (Toby Kebbell) and his betrayal at the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Both Karin Konoval and Terry Notary reprise their roles as the kind hearted Maurice and loyal soldier Rocket. With Judy Greer’s captivating performance as Caesar’s Queen Cornelia shining through what little screen time she has as she cares for both her husband and sons against the backdrop of war.
With a strong cast of characters in place, Reeves uses the pre-existing relationships to explore how Caesar interacts with those around him as he struggles to maintain control as a husband, father, chief and military leader; a role that has been foisted upon him. Rather than being confined to tell the same old story about the ‘horrors of war’ – although these familiar tropes are present – Reeves uses his central character as an entry point for the audience and brings the action to a human level. Rather than experience the war from numerous standpoints we get to understand the pressure that Caesar faces as a leader and understand the numerous mistakes that he will make.
And boy does he make a few.
Although war is the prime focus of the film, it wouldn’t have been out of place to change the title to ‘Revenge of the Planet of the Apes’ as this is Caesar’s main drive for the majority of the movie. Having mentioned the human level aspect to the storytelling already, this is primarily a result of Caesar’s quest to hunt down and kill the film’s main (human) antagonist, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) for a bungled assassination attempt in the opening act. In effort to avoid spoilers, I’ll gloss over the assassination attempt itself but it is the unfolding chaos that comes out that which leads to repercussions for the Ape Colony. As Caesar not only puts his own desire for vengeance ahead of what’s best for the tribe but becomes blinded by the fear of becoming someone that he has come to despise, Koba.
As the third (and final?) film in the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise, I would be reneged to not acknowledge that the movie’s main plot does wear a little thin. Although Caesar’s actions and his path towards retribution are earned, they don’t ring true with the type of leader and his decision making skill that he has demonstrated in the past. With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes having already presented a similar moral dilemma that threatened to turn his own colony against him, it appears that Reeves settled for raising the stakes with regards to the human threat rather than focus on the nuanced tribe dynamics that could have been explored further, especially considering Caesar’s actions directly put his family in harm’s way, an aspect that is touched upon when we reach the concentration camp towards the end of the film.
The biggest knock against the story is the uneven pacing that occurs once we are committed to going on this revenge quest with Caesar, Maurice and Rocket. Although it is important to explore the dynamic between this band of brothers that we have known since the first film, the actual quest itself serves only one purpose: introducing the muted little girl Nova (Amiah Miller) whose condition leads to a just dessert for one character and a possible explanation for how the Apes eventually
take over the planet in the future. I can excuse the plodding somewhat, considering it leads to the introduction of Steve Zahn’s adorable Bad Ape and much-needed levity, but the meandering middle half sucks up screen time that could have better been served to explore Caesar and the Colony’s incarceration towards the tail end of the film.
This aside, the character exploration – particularly Andy Serkis’ Academy Award worthy performance – and stunning visual effects make up for the thinly veiled retread of Reeves’ worthy entry in Dawn. For what can be considered a strong ending to Caesar’s story, War for the Planet of the Apes is certainly not the best in the trilogy. With issues of pacing, questionable plot points and a comic book villain that feels out of place, War will drag you through the ringer as you follow Caesar’s heartbreaking closing chapter… but will leave you wishing for the nuanced story that Reeves’ previous film offered.