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WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is a Very Human Story (Review)

When the Planet of the Apes saga began with Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 original, the titular apes were supposed to be a shocking revelation–apes that are smarter than the humans, and who view smart humans as a threat to their very way of life. Not all apes thought this way, with the compassionate Cornelius and Zira helping confused astronaut Taylor. This continued in the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but thereafter, with the exception of the Tim Burton remake, we’re meant to side with the apes fully. In the franchise’s latest entry, Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, the apes have never been so charismatic or sympathetic.


Beginning in 2011 with Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we’ve been treated to a trilogy of movies that, little by little, endeavor to make the humans the villains and the apes the heroes. That film introduced a man-made pathogen that makes apes hyper-intelligent, and eventually kills a huge amount of the human population. 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes showed a dwindling human race struggling to retain supremacy, fomenting a war with the apes that just want to be left alone. Finally, with War, we see both sides becoming increasingly desperate, leading to an examination of which species truly is the most human. It’s the absolute perfect end to this trilogy.


To be more specific, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his clan of apes have been trying to live peacefully in the Pacific Northwest while the humans refuse to allow it. A rogue colonel (Woody Harrelson) and his small but fervent band of ape-hunters refuse to coexist peacefully, and the wearying Caesar wants the ongoing conflict to end. He sends his clan to seek shelter while he and a small group of apes–including Maurice and Rocket, who’ve been around since the first movie–try to hunt the Colonel. But Caesar’s hatred for the military extremist–and the lengths he is willing to go to in order to stop him–might put everything he loves at risk.

Steve Zahn as Bad Ape in Twentieth Century Fox's "War for the Planet of the Apes."

Along the way, Caesar meets a few new characters, including a zoo-bred ape (Steve Zahn) who indicates there could possibly be more apes as intelligent as our core group, and a human child (Amiah Miller) who might very well hold the secret to the future of humanity. Both are welcome additions to the franchise, and Zahn’s wide-eyed loopiness stands a real shot at stealing the movie right out from under the two dramatic leads. On the opposite side of things we have Rex, played by Ty Olsson, a gorilla who was formerly a follower of the traitorous Koba (Toby Kebbell). Now, Rex is a “Donkey,” an ape collaborating with the Colonel’s human army, seemingly in exchange for leniency. In him, we get to see exactly what betraying one’s own kind does to a psyche.

Woody Harrelson stars in Twentieth Century Fox's "War for the Planet of the Apes."

In an age of bloated, over-complicated blockbusters, it’s refreshing to see a movie so narratively concise. The film may be called War for the Planet of the Apes, but at its heart it is a showdown between two characters with drastically opposing viewpoints. Both are fighting for the existence of their species in this new, post-outbreak landscape. Neither seems to be at the top of the world; they’ve both lost a great deal. Even though Harrelson’s character is the villain through and through, I applaud the film’s ability to give the Colonel a completely justified position, even if it is the most extreme response to it.

Karin Konoval, left, and Amiah Miller in Twentieth Century Fox's "War for the Planet of the Apes."

Over the course of these three movies, we’ve seen Caesar go from “bright eyed” baby chimpanzee, to adolescent, to leader, to soldier, to general, and eventually to king. Through all of that, it’s been the astonishingly layered and nuanced performance of Serkis that has made it what it is. The technology to make the apes believable is certainly a factor, but it’s the eyes–and what’s going on behind them–that is what’s most important to the audience truly empathizing with Caesar, at the center of three films. As the films have gone on, there are fewer and fewer sympathetic human characters, so we truly are siding with the apes from beginning to end. If the performances weren’t as strong as they are, it’s very possible that we wouldn’t.


War for the Planet of the Apes is the contemplative final chapter in the saga of primates with burgeoning hyper-intelligence. To Reeves’ credit, he doesn’t try to outdo the end battle sequence from Dawn, instead using the bigger action moments to reflect the central themes, that of two leaders contending with hate, fear, regret, mercy, suffering, and hopefully salvation. You might think you know where the finale is heading, but you definitely don’t know how it’s going to get there.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Damn, Dirty Burritos


Images: Twentieth Century Fox

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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