As the decline and fall of the human empire continues apace outside the movie theater—where it’s been a hot summer in a world rapidly getting much hotter—War for the Planet of the Apes, the third installment in the best blockbuster franchise currently running, takes the self-destructive path our species seems to have chosen straight to its logical endpoint. Before the opening titles begin to roll, Homo sapiens’ future is already looking very dicey. A genetic rival has sprung up: a new breed of super-intelligent apes. Because of the deadly to humans “simian flu” that accompanied their accidental creation in a lab, these apes already pose an extinction threat to their progenitors by their second generation of existence.
Rather than negotiate a peaceful co-existence with the apes, we dumber hominids have decided to declare all-out war on them. Or at least some of us have: One faction of survivors is working toward a cure for the virus, opening the way to ape-human accord. (Director Matt Reeves, who also helmed the last chapter, never allows the viewer the relief valve of glimpsing that relatively benevolent human world; we only learn about its existence secondhand and through the results of its actions on much darker moral terrain.) But a charismatic leader has sprung up to unite the rest of the survivors in a cult suspended midway between Heart of Darkness and Nazi Germany. These militaristic zealots get off on the torture and mistreatment of apes, using them as slave labor in a prison camp where they’re starved, beaten, and tortured, sometimes by turncoat members of their own kind. Are you ready to escape reality at the multiplex yet?
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If you’ve been following this thrilling and thoughtful series since Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011—and if you haven’t, maybe take your anti-franchise snobbism down a peg?—you know that charismatic leadership of a more inspiring sort has been at its center all along. The first and most advanced of the new apes, a chimp named Caesar and performed in motion-capture animation by master of the form Andy Serkis, is both Adam and Moses to his fellow über-simians. Because of his fierce commitment to apekind, they have achieved everything from humanlike speech (which they supplement with their own silent, gestural language) to complex social organization, including a formidable guerrilla (!) cavalry. But as we learned in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar isn’t all wise leadership and stoic courage. He has his weaknesses, including a proud and vengeful streak that, in that movie, got him into trouble when a rebel bonobo, Koba (Toby Kebbell)—who appears in the new film only in Caesar’s nightmarish hallucinations—led a violent uprising that split the ape community into warring factions.
Dawn saw the first movie’s tormented Caesar, who struggled to define his place in both the ape and human worlds, transformed into an ambivalent Shakespearean king, his furry head uneasy beneath the crown. Now, in Part 3 of what feels like a self-sufficient trilogy (but will likely not be the end of the franchise, given the critical and popular success these movies have found), Caesar is a seasoned patriarch with gray hairs sprinkled through his dark-brown coat. Though the community he leads is threatened from without by humans, its members remain, in the words of the liberatory motto of the first movie, “apes together strong.” Except, that is, for the collaborationist primates disparagingly nicknamed “donkeys” by their human masters and made to serve as beasts of burden and enforcers of the camp’s sadistic laws.
After a brutal human raid on the cave where Caesar is holed up with his ape cohort, the apes make plans to flee across the desert in search of a safe place to settle. But just as their journey is starting, Caesar and a few of his comrades peel off to track down the cruel human leader who has caused their tribe such suffering. This turns out to be a fanatical ape-hater known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). In a character a bit too overtly reminiscent of Marlon Brando’s Kurtz—late in the movie, a shot of wall graffiti warns of “Ape-ocalypse Now”—Harrelson explores the inner life of a megalomaniac who, however unhinged, nonetheless has his own motivations and perverse code of honor. It’s a marker of what a dark political moment we’re in that, watching Harrelson’s Colonel blast Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” as he prepared to whip his followers into a slogan-chanting frenzy, I found myself thinking, “At least he believes in something.”
By the time Caesar and his band of fellow travelers locate the Colonel’s armed compound near the California-Nevada border, they’ve picked up two more sidekicks: a former zoo chimp (Steve Zahn, making his motion-capture debut) whose years spent hiding out in isolation have left him a little touched in the head and a human child (Amiah Miller), a mute orphan who’s been adopted by the compassionate orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval). Zahn is touching and very funny in the role of the self-identified “Bad Ape.” But the inclusion of the sweet little blond girl struck me as a step in the direction of interspecies sentimentalism. Given the bleakness of this film’s vision of the future of humanity, I don’t begrudge the screenwriters (director Reeves, in collaboration with Mark Bomback) an attempt to include a single sympathetic figure from our withering branch of the hominid family tree. But especially in a movie with so few female characters—the only other significant one is a young ape charged with caring for Caesar’s baby son in his absence—it would have been nice if the sole representative of humankind worth saving had possessed the ability to speak.
Still, War for the Planet of the Apes is a formidable achievement: not just the rare last chapter in a trilogy that maintains the high quality of the first two, but a visually lush, heart-pounding summer action movie that dares to ask hard questions about the struggle between good and evil—both on the larger social scale and within each individual—and the fate of life on Earth. It’s fitting, when you think about it, that the most complex and memorable movie hero of this historical moment is neither a human being with supernatural powers nor an alien come to save/destroy us all. Rather, Caesar—as embodied by Serkis and engineered by the magicians of the Weta animation studio—is something familiar yet new, a terrestrial life form created by human technology whose existence throws into question our species’ long-held dominion over the Earth. It’s still our planet, for now. But walking out of War for the Planet of the Apes—after an audience-hushing climax in which nature roars back to reclaim what’s been stolen from her—you may find yourself wondering how much longer we deserve it.