There is something heartening in a sequel to a sequel that is as good as the original. Imagine how much more heartening it is that WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, the third in the trilogy that launched with the excellent DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and continued with the equally excellent RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, is actually superior to its antecedents. The story dares much, including philosophical musings on the nature of the soul that is perfectly married to an explosively effective action flick. Oh, and those CGI apes are sheer perfection. So much so that if Andy Serkis doesn’t get an Oscar™ nomination for his multi-faceted performance as Caesar, the morally torn leader of the apes, there is no justice.
It is 15 years since the events of the last film, wherein a simian virus spread through the human population, wiping most of it out and leaving the survivors with a grudge against the apes. A grudge that erupted into slaughter, and sent Caesar and his group to live a hidden life in the Pacific Northwestern woods. The humans may have been reduced to endangered status, but a determined contingent led by a mad Colonel (Woody Harrelson), is still tracking Caesar with the intention of terminating him and his kind. That would be the smart kind, advanced on the evolutionary ladder, as you might recall, by a well intentioned experiment gone wrong. The theme of tampering with Mother Nature provides a pedagogical subtext to the proceedings, as we learn that when humankind takes these matters into its own hands, the law of unintended consequences kicks in with a vengeance-
Rather than allow Caesar to retreat with his group to a human-free haven beyond the desert, the Colonel stages a sneak attack, killing Caesar’s wife and son, and forcing the ape leader to confront the darkest parts of his soul when his need for revenge threatens his moral compass. Taunted by visions of Koba (Toby Kebell), his ape nemesis who intensified the human-ape hostilities in RISE, and struggling to do the right thing by his surviving child, and the group as a whole, Caesar grimly abandons many of his principles, only to be challenged by Maurice (Karin Konoval), the aged orangutan who is his most trusted advisor, and Nova (Amiah Miller), the silent human child that Maurice refuses abandon to certain death.
The film is infused with a perfection of cinematic allusions, from THE SEARCHERS and THE GREAT ESCAPE, to a incisive deconstruction of APOCALYPSE NOW that is an apotheosis of that classic film re-imagined to a newly discovered relevance. Starting with Harrelson, shaven of head and spouting righteous sermons of fear-based hatred that has become for him a holy writ. Behind mirrored sunglasses that are no small evocation of his role in NATURAL BORN KILLERS, he is the manifestation of humanity’s id, rearranging the doctrine of natural selection to serve his own purposes. By the time we see the graffito Ape-ocalypse Now, it is merely confirmation.
The greatest hurdle this film has to face is that we know, in general, how it will end. The details of humankind’s fall are there to reinforce the idea that nature, and natural selection, knows what is best. An idea that gains credence for us by giving us the ape’s eye view that makes the apes more sympathetic than the humans, even in their failings. There is nothing easier than comparing angels and demons, nor duller. Even the Colonel has his reasons, as do the ape collaborators, called donkeys by the humans, who help in the persecution of their own. It is Caesar’s struggle, though, that provides the emotional pull, a fact that the filmmakers understand and that they demonstrate by spending so much time in tight close-ups of his face. A face that is transparent to every thought, and that transmits each of them with intensity and immediacy. He is unwillingly caught at the nexus of civilizations, and the weight of that is a palpable component of the performance.
Yet this is more than a film about the inner life. There are spectacular sequences of battle that are as harrowing as the smaller moments of personal betrayal and loss. That same CGI is just as emotionally engrossing when Maurice first meets Nova. His wise and compassionate eyes gently trying to reassure the frightened child who painstakingly goes from terror to gratitude in the presence of pure kindness. A kindness all the more remarkable when contrasted with the scars on the orangutan’s face, scars from wound received from humans.
Kindness is the pertinent metric in WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. In a film that is truly epic in scope, it is also a dialectic on that most humane of qualities for which, in a perfect world, nature would select.