After the greatness that was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the filmmakers went for the trifecta of great Apes movies and made War. Somehow, Matt Reeves created a movie that lived up to the first two, while giving us something almost completely different.
War isn’t the best movie in this trilogy, but it is still outstanding. For a movie with the word “war” in the title, it doesn’t have the scale and epic battle sequences that you might expect – it is more a psychological war. But it has deep characterization, world building, and again, important themes.
(Spoilers to follow)
This is the installment where it becomes undeniable that Caesar is a tragic hero. He loses his wife and son early in the movie and dies at the end. We see a man – yes I said that on purpose – who is tired and worn from years of successfully leading this group of apes. He has a simple goal: to protect those closest to him, as well as the rest of the apes. And he is only able to halfway succeed. By the end, he has lead the apes to a safe haven where they can legitimately build a new world and society (and that’s what they do, based on a movie from 50 years ago). Caesar accomplishes his goal, loses those who are most important to him (minus his infant son, Cornelius), and sacrifices his life for the cause. His death is almost a personal choice, in that he knows that he has finally accomplished what he set out to do. He no longer has to fight the way he was previously.
Where this one differs in a big way from the first two movies is that there is no sympathetic human character. We can see where the Colonel is coming from with his plans, but that is more seen as mental illness. It tried and failed to do what Infinity War does well with its main villain.
But even with this slightly lackluster aspect, it shows evolution and development in this series. Here, Caesar is meant to be the lens through which we view the events. In Rise, we had Will be our bridge to the apes, and in Dawn it was Malcolm. But in War, Caesar is to be seen as evolved and almost completely humanlike. And when we view him equally to the way we view ourselves, we are able to sympathize with him and the rest of the apes more completely.
This fact is why the main themes hit home so well. The apes become slaves for the Colonel so that he can build his wall to keep the other army out. They don’t get adequate nutrition and are worked way too hard. Caesar is treated even more poorly once he is captured. There are also elements of torture, culture, and immigration. They are effective because we finally see the apes as people, in a sense. We don’t need our human bridge anymore, because it’s Caesar. This allows us to root for the apes unapologetically.
We also get a lighter tone than we have during some portions of the movie. Bad Ape’s presence inherently brings this tone as he and Maurice take care of Nova. Since the rest of the movie is so bleak, this is a welcome respite, and it again gives the movie its own separate feel from the other two.
Even with the title being War, we never really see an actual physical, fighting war play out. It is more of a psychological war between Caesar and the Colonel. Yes, there are armies and soldiers and weapons, but not a whole lot of actual fighting happens until the very end. It doesn’t give the grand spectacle of a blockbuster that we would expect – it gives us something better. It’s something that we needed, but that we didn’t know we needed until we got it.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the superb acting from Andy Serkis. He delivers what is perhaps a career-best performance in this movie. Just look at mix of negative emotions he portrays when he discovers his wife and son have been killed. Performances like this one are the reason people want there to be an Academy Award for motion capture performances.
War is a great closing piece to this fantastic trilogy. Unlike other trilogies where the third installment is the weakest link, this one is right up there with the other two. It ties up all loose ends and closes the best trilogy of the last decade.