Completing a trilogy is a difficult task. When you really think about it, few films have been able to pull it off with universally satisfying results. Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 3, for example, was panned by both fans and critics, and continues to taint the legacy of the entire trilogy. X-Men 3 and Terminator 3 similarly frowned upon. Even Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises-which I consider to be a great movie and indeed a great finale-failed to gain truly universal acclaim. So when a movie comes along that finishes off a franchise on a true high note, it is something special. Think of Return Of The King or The Bourne Ultimatum; think of Return Of The Jedi or The Last Crusade. Think of Toy Story 3 or The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. Many of these are considered landmark films, and play a large role in why their respected trilogies have gone down in cinema history.
War For The Planet Of The Apes joins their ranks.
Caesar’s story comes to a truly satisfying conclusion in what is, I believe, the most epic movie I’ve seen in theaters since Interstellar. This movie is spectacular. Director Matt Reeves returns from his masterful sequel and broadens his scope to even more grand horizons. What started as a questionable reboot will now go down as one of cinema’s great trilogies.
Indeed, this is Caesar’s story. It became clear by the end of the first movie that this new Apes story was less about the idea of primates taking over the world and more about their leader. Both Rise and Dawn were character-driven pieces, with the latter expanding upon the themes of the former and taking things to an even deeper level for ape leader. In War, Caesar has everything he has ever preached tested for him personally, with his own personal demon remnant of Koba still haunting him from the events of the previous movie. At the center of this truly epic war is this one figure; it is made clear from the opening text of the movie to the final shot of the film, Caesar is the center of everything taking place. He is presented as both a Christ-figure for the apes, and viewed as an anti-Christ figure by the humans. The fate of the entire world seems to truly rest upon his shoulders; all the while, he’s wrestling with his own rage and his own sins that are a direct result of a war that he didn’t start. In this way, Caesar continues to be a sympathetic lead. He did not choose to be in this position of leadership for the apes, because he did not choose to be the first intelligent ape; in the same way, he did not start the titular war, but he bears the burden of having to finish it. All of this makes for a fascinating and personal journey that does indeed grant the character closure in a very satisfying manner.
Unlike the other two entires, there is no true human counterpart for Caesar that is “good” per say. There is, however, a fascinating and compelling human counterpart for him in the antagonist, known simply as “The Colonel”, played by Woody Harrelson. While David Oyelowo and Gary Oldman were definitely antagonistic figures in their respected movies, neither of them were the true antagonist of their story. Harrelson is the clear antagonist, and he is an extremely compelling villain; in many ways, he is a mirror image of Caesar for the humans, especially as Caesar becomes more open to the idea of killing out of desperation and rage. There is a sense of understanding between the two, and for the firs time in the entire trilogy, Caesar seems to have come at odds with an equal. Yes, Koba was a villain that posed a threat to Caesar, but you never felt as if he was equal with Caesar. With The Colonel, you feel as if he and Caesar are equals, and that is part of what makes him a great villain. The other aspect of his character that makes him a great villain is our understanding of him as an audience; while we are not rooting for him, we understand him, and can sympathize with his character. This is a key component to any great villain, the screenplay does The Colonel justice in allowing him to have softer, more quiet moments that allow for reliability. It would have been so easy for him to simply be desperate for the “survival of the human race” and call it done there; but the film goes further, offering his reasoning, which in some cases presents him as a very noble man. I understood him for the entirety of the runtime, and I always feared him. He’s like Caesar, but more cold and deranged; while only one thing really separates them in this movie, it is that one thing that makes him a chilling man and presents a great counter for Caesar to overcome. That’s what a great villain is.
In terms of scope, this is the biggest Apes movie yet. The action is more grand, and there are a plethora of cinematic set-pieces. All of it is made even better by the excellent cinematography, which is some of the best of the year thus far. Wide landscapes and good use of natural beauty define this film’s imagery, and the pay off is a constant sense that the story being told is truly grandiose. The entire thing feels cinematic, more-so than its also cinematic predecessors ever did.
Even so, between all of the battles and within some massive frames, there are quiet moments that allow this movie to become truly thought provoking. It is thinkin man’s sci-fi, and I like that. The best sci-fi causes us as human beings to become self-reflective, and that is what the Apes franchise has done since its beginning. Here, despite the scale of the story and the loud noise that comes with it, that thought provoking quality is very much present. That is due, again, to the excellent characterization of both Caesar and The Colonel.
It is nice to finish this ride with Caesar along with some of his friends that have been around since the first movie. Rocket makes a return, as does the wise orangoutang Maurice. Caesar’s wife and two sons are also back. These characters do help provide a sense of continuity and consistency, which is possibly put at risk when each film has a new human counterpart for Caesar. My one slight gripe with the movie, however, is from one of the new side-characters, known simply as “Bad Ape”. He serves as comedic relief in the midst of this extremely heavy movie, and to me he just out of place and unnecessary. He has a couple of moments in which he drives the plot forward, but even so, I did not understand the need for his character. Two welcome additions, on the other hand, are a young human girl named Nova (a nice reference to the original film) and an ape known as Donkey who is working with the humans. Both of these characters feel appropriately placed and well utilized, and most importantly they are compelling characters on their own.
But it all comes back to Caesar. I was curious to see if this trilogy, which has been heavy with references to the original movie since Rise, would end with a sort of hint at the coming of Charlton Heston’s character from the original movie; since his rocket was named specifically in Rise, and this movie itself made a reference by naming one of its characters Nova, and another Cornelius (Caesar’s youngest son). I feel like this is not a terribly big spoiler, but the movie never makes such a connection; and while at first I was surprised a little bit, I felt it was right to resist that franchise-driven urge. Matt Reeves and co. see this movie for what it truly is: not a connection between this franchise and the original, or even the beginning of a new Apes reboot with a retelling of Charlton Heston’s story. This movie is the concluding chapter of a trilogy that is ultimately not about apes taking over the world; it is all about the character of Caesar. This is his trilogy, and I applaud the filmmakers for respecting the character and letting it end as his trilogy. I do think it makes for a more satisfying ending by the time its all said and done, as one now leaves the theatre not contemplating what is to come or if anything is to come; rather, one leaves the theatre with a sense of closure. That’s part of what makes a finale great, that sense of closure. And for Caesar’s story, there is indeed satisfying closure.
See this movie on the largest screen you can with the best sound you can, because it is nothing short of epic. Enjoy this truly theatrical experience. As stated earlier, great conclusions are pretty hard to come by, even in the age of the franchise. So when we get a movie like War For The Planet Of The Apes, we ought to enjoy it in the most grand fashion that we can.
Apes. Together. Strong.