And so ends one of the best trilogies Hollywood has ever put out. I’m genuinely amazed this franchise, of all of the dozens of intellectual property reboots out there, has produced three consistently compelling yet fascinatingly different instalments that never feel hewed in by studio interference. The studio system can work, you guys!
War for the Planet of the Apes is a strange movie in some respects because it seems absolutely determined to stay ten steps ahead of your preconceived notions of what it’ll be, and what will happen next. The opening action sequence revisits the pine forest vistas of Dawn and delivers on that movie’s promise of a greater intensity and violence to it, before that setting is ditched entirely for a barren weapons depot in the middle of god knows where. The movie promises a fast, kinetic revenge story and then takes a hard left turn into a meditative, slow-cooking prison camp story that takes a searing look at the cruelties of man.
And hey, speaking of the humans, they’re worth talking about. One of the most interesting things about this trilogy is how it’s carefully altered our own perspective. In Rise, James Franco (of all people) was our viewpoint into this world as he learned the incompatibility of his life with the maturing perspective of Caesar. In Dawn, we split our time pretty evenly between Caesar and a mix of friendly-but-bland and distinctive-but-psychotic humans. In War, it’s more or less all apes, all the time. There is no human protagonist. The main human character, the Colonel, is an embodiment of a species in an sickening death spiral and unleashing its worst instincts as it goes down (Woody Harrelson delivers a fantastic performance, reminding us of how you can plug him into any blockbuster franchise, and it will always work). The rest of the human characters are basically an unintelligible morass, defined by unrepentant cruelty and in doing so losing their right to individuality.
Slightly related to this, it’s also remarkable how this movie uses noise. Relentless, unmodulated sound and fury seems to be the defining aspect of some blockbuster franchises, so the utter quiet of vast stretches of this movie stands out all the more. And it’s a great way of throwing into relief the differences between man and ape. In all-ape scenes, the ambience is serene and balanced, as they communicate in clear and effective sign language. When the humans come in, the volume cranks up, and that peace is shattered; especially in the all-guns-blazing final act that depicts the ugliness of pointless, self-defeating human conflict as a cacophony that eventually purges the humans from the landscape. That’s the kind of clever, sensory storytelling that I hope that Matt Reeves will bring to his next project, The Batman.
Anyhoo. This is not a perfect movie. It indulges some pretty tiresome clichés – fridging its only female ape character of any real note for an inciting incident in the first act is never a good look. And the pace sometimes slackens, such as the overindulgent first act that takes its sweet time getting to what ends up literally being a fireworks factory, or the slight repetition of powerful dramatic beats such as the apes’ solidarity in the face of oppression.
But to pick too hard at it would be churlish. I’m grateful that this personal, emotional character drama and philosophical meditation on the brokenness of humanity in in unconvincing action movie’s clothing somehow exists, and was given a $150 million budget by a major studio. If you want to avoid franchise fatigue and audience apathy, Hollywood, this is the kind of stuff you make. Learn from it. Be good.