The Planet of the Apes prequel series which began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, followed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014, comes to an epic conclusion with the just released War for the Planet of the Apes. Other than the unwieldy titles, there is virtually nothing to complain about in what is perhaps the most intelligent sci-fi movie series of modern times. Particularly after the disappointing remake by Tim Burton in 2001, few industry watchers could have foreseen this franchise finding new life in any meaningful way. The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 starred Charlton Heston and was based on the 1963 French novel by Pierre Boulle (he also wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai). This new series serves as a prequel, setting up the chain of events which leads to apes gaining intelligence, speech and eventually, mastery over man.
A lot of the credit for this new series goes to the husband-and-wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who wrote the script for Rise and Dawn, while also co-producing all three films. Their achievement is surprising given their previous track record which is nothing to write home about. In fact, they didn’t even have any credited screenplays between 1997’s pulpy sci-fi horror film The Relic and the 2011 reboot of the Apes franchise. I would love to know what these two were doing during these years and how they convinced Fox to greenlight this smart and insightful approach to bringing the Apes property back to the screen. They also wrote the story/ screenplay for 2015’s Jurassic World and while that film was an outstanding box office success, it shows nowhere near the same level of attention to plot detail or plausibility as this new Apes series.
Another key factor is the extraordinary use of motion-capture and CGI technology in recent years and that too, applied at scale across dozens of characters. But mo-cap technology is only as good as the actor behind the CGI and in this case, no praise is too great for the unique talents of Andy Serkis as Caesar. Surely Serkis deserves a lifetime recognition award of the highest order for the iconic CGI characters he has brought to life over the past 2 decades, starting with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) and then the titular character in King Kong (2005); I am looking forward to his rendition of Baloo the bear in the Warner Bros. version of The Jungle Book which will be released in October 2018 with Serkis behind the camera as well.
War concludes the epic saga of Caesar the chimpanzee. In Rise, we are introduced to baby Caesar, whose mother was experimented on with an intelligence-enhancing viral-based drug developed to treat Alzheimer’s. Caesar inherits his mother’s intelligence and in due course, uses an improved version of the drug to enhance and free several other apes from the testing facility and also from the San Francisco zoo. After a pitched battle with police on the Golden Gate bridge, Caesar and the newly-intelligent apes escape to the woods outside the city. Meanwhile, the drug mutates and sets off a worldwide pandemic, wiping out most of humanity. Ten years later, in Dawn, Caesar and his tribe have established a settlement in the woods. But he has to deal with another ape Koba, who challenges his leadership and also triggers a confrontation with a group of surviving humans in San Francisco. Caesar defuses the conflict with the help of a sympathetic human family and the film ends Godfather-style with Caesar re-establishing his authority as the leader of the apes. War is set 5 years later and sets up the ‘final conflict’ between apes and man, as Caesar and his tribe are hunted down by a well-trained and armed militia led by a merciless colonel. One can see the influences of both Western and prison break genres in parts of the movie; and even though it’s the longest film of the trilogy, there is a strong forward momentum to the plot and the running time of 2 hours and 22 minutes does not weigh the film down.
The film also continues to explore the recurring themes of the franchise – racism, family bonds, loyalty, betrayal and revenge. Throughout the films, we are frequently left to wonder if it’s the apes or the humans who are more civilized. I had read that the third film was the darkest of the trilogy but in fact there are surprising moments of humor, particularly with the new ape character named “bad ape” and voiced by Steve Zahn. Woody Harrelson plays the ruthless colonel with an understated menace and keen sense of history and purpose, rather than as an over-the-top psycho (which Harrelson is well capable of doing!). The plot also employs the clever use of a little orphaned human girl Nova (played by Amiah Miller) who joins Caesar’s group and acts as a counterpoint to all the human brutality.
The technical level in this series has been consistently top class, but in this third installment it’s worth calling out Michael Seresin’s cinematography, particularly in scenes at the apes’ waterfall camp and later on the beach (which recalls the iconic final moments of the 1968 original). Also, composer Michael Giacchino employs some interesting percussion to heighten the tempo in key scenes. I’d love to see both of them get Oscar nominations this year.
For anyone new to the series, I recommend watching the 1968 original followed by this prequel trilogy. Fans of the series will enjoy references to earlier films, such as the beach scene or the use of character names like Nova and Cornelius.