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This movie is more tightly focused on a small cast of characters than the marketing would indicate.

Without much fanfare or celebration, the new Planet of the Apes movies have quietly become one of the best blockbuster and/or science fiction franchises we have right now. While Rise focused heavily on the issues of our treatment of intelligent animals and the practical ramifications of their personhood, Dawn began both a post-apocalyptic fable of the collision of diametrically opposed civilizations (a First Contact fable) as well as a tight civil rights allegory with two influential apes taking on the roles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, struggling for the soul of the rising Ape nation and how it would deal with the dwindling but still threatening human oppressors (very similar to how Xavier and Magneto intersect in the X-Men comics and movies). The wrestling match between hate and love, vengeance and mercy was a critical piece of Dawn‘s thematic content. Now arrives the closing chapter of the trilogy with War for the Planet of the Apes, a movie that continues parts of the civil rights allegory (and adding some contemporary dimensions) while also adding a broad swing for the mythic, with elements of the movie recalling Biblical stories and the foundation myths of several cultures.

It’s important to note that War is not the gigantic humans vs. apes war movie that the marketing promised, but neither was Dawn. All three movies played up the warrior apes stuff in their marketing. I remember the trailers for Rise heavily relied on the Golden Gate Bridge battle. Dawn had more war scenes and action than War does. But that doesn’t mean that War for the Planet of the Apes is disappointing or somehow not a war movie. It’s both extremely satisfying as well as being a pretty unflinching and bleak war/anti-war movie. The thematic struggles of Dawn are still present, with the specter of Koba (Toby Kebbell) and his vengeful hate haunting both Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the events of this film. But instead of big battle scenes, War emphasizes the personal and there’s a lot of dialogue, most of it the hybrid ape language of vocalizations and sign language. Stopping to appreciate that this is a huge movie where tons of the dialogue isn’t English and most of the characters are CG apes is sort of obligatory at this point, but it’s no less impressive here than before. They keep managing to up the ante and making these characters even more lifelike and believable.

Though it is a pretty bleak and emotional movie (hoo boy), there probably more humor and comic relief here than in the previous two films. The tonal mix is potent and very well handled by Matt Reeves, who has really built magnificently on what Rupert Wyatt and his team began with Rise. This movie is also more gorgeous even than Dawn, with shots that are just jaw-dropping as well as many iconic tableaus with the apes especially. There’s also all the world-building, attention to detail, and believability that we’ve come to expect from this series. What’s perhaps lacking is the scale promised by the trailers, but I think by the time the movie starts to kick into gear, most viewers won’t mind the movie we got, even if it comes at the cost of the (potentially more shallow) movie we seemed to be getting.

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The rise of street-level fascism and hateful militias has informed this movie a great deal.

There’s been another time jump and we rejoin Caesar’s clan of apes as they are in hiding, fighting a guerilla war against the ape-hunting forces of the human army that was called in by Dreyfus at the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The apes have completely broken ties with humans and Malcolm’s small family is nowhere to be found here. Instead, the focus is like 95% on the apes as Caesar tries to keep his dwindling people alive long enough to escape from the woods and find a new home. He has become a mythic figure, both to his people and to the humans who search for him, believing that killing him will mean an easier time rooting out the last of the apes.

Because the humans, led by a similarly mythic figure known as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), have been so much more successful in their attacks against the apes, Caesar has sent out scouts including his son Blue Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones) to find a refuge. Just as they finally have one and things begin to look better for the apes, the Colonel manages to find their hidden cave base and launch an attack against Caesar. Thinking he’s killed “King Kong”, the Colonel actually murders both Blue Eyes and Caesar’s wife, Cornelia (Judy Greer). Yeah. This movie gets sad pretty goddamn fast. All Caesar has left is his baby son, Cornelius, and a risky plan to get his people to safety.

Instead, he chooses to go on a very personal quest for vengeance, the memory of Koba never far from him.

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It’s all about the dog… er ape… that you feed.

So while Caesar travels with his closest allies, who all insist on accompanying him, he learns more about the world that he and his people were hiding from. Other apes in other places have also risen to the level of Caesar’s apes, and it turns out that the humans are no longer getting along that well either. A search for answers dovetails with the search for revenge, and every revelation ties into who Caesar must ultimately be and what legacy he’s going to leave behind for his people. Along the way, we get to see how the humans see the apes. The Colonel is a completely hate-able character even when we understand his true motivations, but once we do we can also understand where his own hatred and ruthlessness come from. There’s a new plague, a new threat to humans that leaves them mute and (allegedly) less able to do “higher thinking”. To the Colonel, leaving the apes alone means letting them replace humanity. It’s a zero sum game to him and his, and they utterly reject the possibility of coexistence.

This has echoes of the contemporary experiences of ethnic and religious minorities and refugees in the countries of the West. Though the white supremacists of, say, North America aren’t really dying out or getting stupid due to a super-plague, the existential threat of the world of War for the Planet of the Apes is definitely perceived by these people as they view more rights for minorities, more cultural influence from non-Western, non-Christian, and non-white cultures to be competing zero-sum threats to their own dominance of the cultures they believe they are in. Their genocidal hatred of the apes and the vengeful anger it inspires in the ape victims are vibrant metaphors for the world we actually do live in. How can Caesar and his apes withdraw from or transcend the cycle of violence? How can humans do the same? War‘s answers to these questions are sobering and mostly challenging.

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Why another kid? This movie risks feeling repetitive to make an important thematic point.

To some extent, War is also a Moses-like myth of a beleaguered people struggling to get away from Pharaoh. Caesar takes on this mythic, Biblical role and the movie recalls the story of Moses quite a few times even as it spends thematic capital on other converging elements. Though the Moses story is prominent, this is also an American movie and my wife said that the ending had some interesting and slightly unsettling “Manifest Destiny” overtones if the refuge the apes discover is actually inhabited (we don’t know!). I do think that the apes can represent Syrian refugees, African-Americans, Jews, and the European pilgrims and refugees that fled Europe and helped create the United States. All of these stories have common elements and common ground with the overarching story of Caesar and the apes. But there are other key themes beyond the possibility of real-world allegories and analogues. One of those plays into what I predicted in my Dawn review: that this would be a symbolic maturation/adolescence for the apes. The innocence of the apes has always been one of the major chips on the table, with a highly personalized relationship to this theme playing out in Rise (Caesar’s eventual willingness to use violence to overcome oppression, but also showing restraint and mercy). Dawn‘s exploration of this was probably more philosophical, playing out in debates between Caesar and Malcolm and/or Koba, struggling more with the ramifications and practical results of different approaches where Rise was more ideologically simple.

War tries to bridge the gap by mostly externalizing Caesar and the apes’ innocence into an actual character while also focusing hard on Caesar as the conduit for the ape experience. This both simplifies and complicates the idea that this is the adolescence of the ape culture, the time where they face challenges that define their identity. This experience is internalized in Caesar’s struggle between anger/hate and love/mercy. The little girl Nova (Amiah Miller), our externalized symbol of innocence, is a war orphan caught between the plague purging of the Colonel and the lingering enmity between seemingly all humans and the apes. Caesar kills her father, it seems, but he also has to adopt her into his little band because she has no one else. Her sickness makes her mute and perhaps simple-minded. Maybe she doesn’t even get it. The film is content to leave the viewer in a state of uneasy ambiguity, which I think is exactly the point. Nova is an almost exclusively symbolic character. But Maurice (Karin Konoval), always the heart of these ape movies, takes a particular shine to Nova (he even names her) and his relationship with her is also symbolic. He’s the guy who tends to innocence, who nurtures the better nature of both Caesar and the apes. Nova represents that Caesar and his apes are still morally superior to the fallen humans they’ve encountered, but it also bleakly suggests the fruition (or perhaps an alternative) to the Colonel’s prophecy of the fate of humans in a Planet of the Apes should the new plague be allowed to spread.

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This guy comes and steals the movie.

Other apes also get to stand out even more here than in the previous movies, in particular Rocket (Terry Notary), once Caesar’s rival and now his staunchest lieutenant and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), his loyal protector and sorta captain of the guard. Though not the most prominent of the secondary ape characters, Bad Ape (Timothy Zahn) steals the movie many times and provides a lot of heart and comic relief. He also represents another dimension of both the theme of threatened innocence and the exploration of who Caesar is and what he could still become if he gives in to the wrong things. Bad Ape is like another version of Caesar, a version that truly lost everything and has become a cowardly, hesitant loner. Joining up with Caesar gives him a chance to be more and he provides the best direct example of what Caesar means to the apes as a leader. There are many scenes where Caesar does heroic, noble, and leaderly shit. This movie provides plenty of support for our investment in Caesar, but nowhere is it more personal and more cutting than in the way Bad Ape looks at him. On the reverse side, one of the last of Koba’s traitor apes is one of the “Donkey Kong” (Red Donkey, Ty Olsson) slaves of the Colonel’s army, a sort of Uncle Tom, whose hatred of Caesar seems to derive from the weaknesses that Caesar’s mercy reveals in himself. Fearful traitorous apes are a major part of War and reinforce the idea that fear is the ultimate undoing of people, whether as individuals or groups. This is also why it’s so important, though so humbly dramatized in the movie, that Bad Ape is able to overcome his own fear. But even Red Donkey, putting aside hate for inspiration, also redeems himself with a heroic act of defiance of fear.

These movies have always tried to show that all the characters are “human” and deserve some amount of sympathy. Characters like Winter, Red Donkey, Preacher, or the Colonel are never dehumanized by the narrative even when they are evil. The biggest test to this idea is The Colonel, which is why it’s so fitting that he’s the last big human villain in the trilogy. He’s wretched and his army of imitator soldiers is just as bad, but when you see him in a puddle of booze trying desperately to speak through the very disease he feared and so ruthlessly tried to expel… it’s hard not to feel some sympathy. And if you don’t, Caesar certainly does. It comes over him maybe, ideally, at the same time it comes over us. This broken man whose ideological myopia has driven him to murder his only child, only to go on to murder the children of others. Caesar is merciful by his own standards, not those of the Colonel, and this is an important distinction. Caesar is always pulled in different directions, expected to be what the world would make him. Just like any adolescent. Instead, the crux of his character arc is finally choosing once and for all who he is and how he’d like to be remembered.

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More this than as a conqueror or assassin.

Obviously there is a fuck of a lot going on in this movie. It’s thematically rich and on point and maintains the upward momentum and power of both the surface story and allegorical underpinnings of the trilogy. This is a big part of the reason why it can survive being slightly mismarketed and that while the infusion of more mythic elements and iconography into the movie feels a little out of sorts with the trilogy as a whole, it can also represent a natural evolution in narrative language and stakes. I think Reeves and his writers were going for this, too, since Maurice (finally inspired to speak aloud) gives the last words of the movie: that Caesar will be remembered for who he was and what he did. In real time, we’re watching both the closing chapter and first glimmerings of the foundational ape myth that was referenced in the original Planet of the Apes movies, and that will no doubt drive the narrative forward if they decide to make more. Given how much money War is making, I can’t see how they’d choose to not continue the Apes movies with a new trilogy about Cornelius or perhaps starting off in the far future with a remake of the original Planet of the Apes.

I hope they go the former route, as there’s are still rich possibilities for the times between. I’m not really eager for another remake of the original movie anyway, since I like the way these latter day ape movies are interrogating ideas and myths about the rise, fall, and collisions of civilizations. I suppose there would be some really rich thematic ore to mine out of that remake if they used the surreal fish out of water scenario to comment on some contemporary stuff, like the refugee experience? I think Matt Reeves made some comments about where he could see future films going. I just hope he gets to make them because while War is a super satisfying conclusion to Caesar’s story, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like I’m not done with the apes.

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