At one point during War for the Planet of the Apes, the final installment of this prequel trilogy of 20th Century Fox’s classic ape-infested series, you catch a glimpse of the phrase “APE-POCALYPSE” scrawled on the wall, clearly stating its influence of war movies. Despite the war messages, the film maintains the strong themes of the Planet of the Apes franchise has had since its inception in 1968.
War opens with a thrilling action sequence that establishes the war between the apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) and what is left of humanity led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). Caesar is affected on a personal level and sets out on a journey against The Colonel. He also continues to be tormented by visions of late enemy Koba (Toby Kebbell).
The trilogy began as a human story about the search for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but is the trilogy is ultimately about Caesar. Throughout the course of these films, Serkis is extraordinary in his portrayal of Caesar’s evolution. Caesar begins with little to no communication skills at the beginning of the series, and by the end is able to question his purpose in life. In this movie, he finds his purpose is to live happily with this family, despite the end of humanity looming. Caesar’s lack of empathy for humans shows a darker side, making him almost like his former enemy Koba. It’s still surprising that Serkis hasn’t been recognized by the Academy, but hopefully the third time’s the charm.
Serkis also lends his talent to the motion capture technology used in this film. The use of this technology has developed significantly over the course of the trilogy. This chapter spends more time in the company of apes who primarily communicate through sign language, an impressive feat for the technology. Going back to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Weta Digital have been the pioneering team behind motion capture. Their work on this Apes trilogy cannot be denied, but it is also the casting that gives the apes a human touch.
The Apes series began as an allegorical sci-fi. What director/co-writer Matt Reeves presents here is one of the bleakest summer blockbusters ever made. In this conflict neither man nor ape can come out unharmed. Both Caesar and The Colonel are characters going through a similar internal battle and showing no mercy to their opposing foe. In what could’ve been a one-dimensional portrayal, Woody Harrelson nails the moral ambiguity of The Colonel. In one extraordinary monologue, he not only explains his justification for his cruelty, but how he envisions the future, in a clever reference to the 1968 classic.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Like the best blockbusters, scenes elicit many emotions such as excitement, terror and even humor. Two new additions to the cast bring a bit of needed levity to the film. Newcomer Amiah Miller as the adorable human Nova and Steve Zahn as the comical Bad Ape are a welcome contrast to the film’s bleak nature.
There is enough ambiguity to the end of the film that another could fill the gap leading to Charlton Heston’s George Taylor’s world. As much as 20th Century Fox will try and crank out any remaining life of a decades long franchise, this feels like a fitting conclusion to this cycle of Planet of the Apes.