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War for the Planet of the Apes

How the hell did we get here?

Seriously, there’s no way this should have worked. A prequel that absolutely nobody asked for, rebooting a ’60s goofball favorite that probably should’ve been left alone (especially after the previous catastrophic reboot under Tim Burton), made by a relatively new director who came out of nowhere. All to make a movie about how a bunch of chimps somehow conquered the world, flying in the face of modern military technology.

I have no idea how this film caught fire, but somehow it did. And things got even better when Matt Reeves stepped in to direct the next two pictures. By whatever miracle, these filmmakers put together a whole trilogy about humans in a global war with CGI monkeys, without making it the least bit ridiculous. How is that possible?

I seriously want to laugh at this, but I can’t. This franchise asks us to empathize with CGI monkeys, expecting us to root for their survival and the near-extinction of mankind, buying into the pathos of this post-apocalyptic hellscape created by monkeys with machine guns. And somehow, the filmmakers got away with it.

What’s even more impressive is in how the filmmakers stuck the landing to bring us a remarkably solid trilogy, consistently bringing action, adventure, thought-provoking science fiction, and heartbreaking drama out of this deeply ludicrous premise.

War for the Planet of the Apes opens with a text recap of the series so far, helpfully title-dropping the previous two films to let us know what happened when. We open a few years after the psychotic ape Koba (Toby Kebbell, who reprises his role in brief flashes here) went renegade and started a war with humans. This created a schism between apes, as Koba’s old followers didn’t trust Caesar (Andy Serkis again) to win the war, protect the apes, and/or let the defeated traitors go without punishment. So it is that several apes — called “Donkeys”, presumably in reference to Donkey Kong — have turned coat and are now fighting for the humans.

Meanwhile, the apes and humans have continued whittling away at each other until both species are on the brink. And then a couple of apes discover a place out in the desert, fit for them to build a new home where humans can’t follow. But before the apes can plan to move out, their base is attacked and Caesar’s wife and son are dead. Whoops.

The vast majority of apes go out on the journey to their new home while Caesar stays behind to go after the human military despot (The Colonel, played with unhinged gusto by Woody Harrelson) who killed his family. Against his wishes, three of Caesar’s closest friends insist on joining him in seeking revenge.

Another wrinkle comes when our party of apes discovers Nova (yes, that Nova, for those of you who recall the original film), a young girl played by newcomer Amiah Miller. She’s relevant because she’s a human sympathetic to apes. Far more importantly, she’s mute. And she’s not the only one.

This whole time, we’ve been so focused on the nascent apes that the other half of the equation has gone mostly unexplored. It’s easy to forget that at the time of the original movie, humans were mute and barely more than animals. The previous two movies never really went into detail about how that might have happened, but we’re going there with the third film. Without getting into spoilers, this firmly establishes that we’ve reached the turning point — if homo sapiens doesn’t recover now, it never will.

Then again, after a global war so brutal that both sides have been reduced to their last and most battle-hardened handful, there’s a very serious question as to whether there’s anything of humans or apes worth saving. Moreover, this war has been going on for so long that both sides have every reason to hate each other. Thus we have Caesar and his continuing struggle to not engage in war for anything other than self-defense, while the humans engage in all manner of atrocities for survival and/or spite.

All throughout the movie, we see humans do some deeply terrible things to apes, even and especially to those on their side. The filmmakers use all sorts of imagery related to persecution, from crucifixion to slavery to Holocaust-era work camps, right up to the obsession with building a giant wall. This is especially relevant because this is a prequel, and we know full well that the apes will win and subjugate mankind. And now that outcome is finally within sight. As such, we’re not just watching how the apes emerge victorious — we’re watching all the unfolding reasons why apes will grow to hate humans and keep strict laws about preventing their resurgence. In turn, this makes a subtle but hard-hitting point about how war crimes committed today can result in deep-seated grudges and prejudices that continue to cause pain for generations to come.

It really is incredible just how much this film can get away with. This film has a lot to say about bigotry, war, vengeance, etc., and it doesn’t pull any punches with regards to the commentary and imagery used. The CGI monkeys help to make the whole thing vastly more effective, at once giving us characters that are easily worth sympathy while also giving just enough of a buffer zone for comfort.

Of course, so much of what makes this movie work is due to the actors and VFX artists. It’s astonishing how the monkeys consistently look photo-real through every moment of screen time. Even though we know deep down that these characters are CGI, it’s hauntingly easy to suspend disbelief and buy into the notion that these are flesh-and-blood sentient beings who are only just now learning to function as a civilization. So it is that we’re forced to choose between the stillbirth of something new and the extinction of something old — either way, it’s a tragic loss.

I don’t really know what else to say here, folks. To go any further would risk spoiling even more than I already have, and there’s no way I could do justice to something so deeply immersive and thought-provoking and heartbreaking. Yes, the action is thrilling and that’s largely what the film has been sold on, but you’ve got to trust me when I say that there’s so much more here and there’s no substitute for seeing it.

Though I do have a few nitpicks.

I can’t say too much about them, because again, spoilers. Though I can say that some of the religious imagery — particularly with regard to the crucifixion and the exodus — can be a little too on-the-nose. Perhaps more importantly, there are quite a few coincidences and shortcuts that speed up the runtime with a suspicious frequency, especially in the back half. There’s also the virus that started this whole thing, which is quickly becoming an all-purpose plot device. That said, all of these are only minor problems, presented with just enough subtlety and logic to preserve suspension of disbelief.

It sucks that War for the Planet of the Apes probably won’t get the fanfare given to louder and flashier films that belong to movies in bigger franchises. It’s a misfit among the big-budget CGI franchise tentpoles we typically see this time of year, largely because of its focus on introspection and ideological conflict rather than massive fights and explosions, but that’s precisely what makes it one of the year’s best movies so far. It’s astonishing how the filmmakers could take a concept outlandish enough for a few laughs and some great action sequences, but deliver something bold and timely in a genuinely hard-hitting way… and then do it three times in a row.

This one comes STRONGLY recommended. Do not miss it.

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