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War for the Planet of the Apes: Trilogy. Together. Strong!

Led by Andy Serkis' powerful performance, War for the Planet of the Apes contains the most distraught and inspiring events of Caesar's tribulations.

Planet of the Apes is perhaps the longest running Hollywood franchise, so far spanning almost 50 years with War for the Planet of the Apes as the 9th installment. The original 1968 movie starring Charlton Heston is always a landmark in film history, but its four sequels and the Tim Burton reboot disappointed in terms of either technical aspect, philosophical tenor, or social consciousness. This pattern was changed by the second reboot, which started with Rise in 2011. The modest movie amazed us with a touching story, Andy Serkis’ outstanding performance, and its awareness of the scientific zeitgeist.  Its 2014 sequel,* Dawn*, built on this success with extraordinary character writing and Matt Reeves’ sterling direction. So it’s easy to understand the reason cinephiles were nervous about how a potentially marvelous trilogy in recent memory could end on a high note. We all know the final battle is inevitable, but nobody prepares for such a conclusion in the tertiary entry to this Apes triptych.

The smart, effective recap at the beginning summarizes the gist of Rise and Dawn for fans as well as the new audience. Years after the Simian Flu’s outbreak, the desperate humankind feels pushed to the dead end by the apes. After credible yet fruitless efforts to maintain the illusion of peace, their feud peaks. Everyone is ready for the final solution of survival. No, not a battle—it’s time for war.

Despite the pressure, Caesar tries his best to be humane.

The titular war doesn’t exclusively refer to the warfare between humans and their simian cousins; it’s also about Caesar’s inner struggle. Caesar of Rise is a lovable pet who grows to his potential and responsibility, and in Dawn, he continues to embrace the better side of humanity. When War begins, his tolerance for humans is uncompromising as he releases four human POWs after their assault on the Ape Colony. That doesn’t mean he is a perfect individual immune of bitterness and cruelty. In Dawn, what the traitorous Koba really does is weigh in another haul of burden on Caesar’s curbed shoulders and ruptured psyche. He must exorcise his demons, which have been accumulating from the events in the first two films: his hatred against animal abuse and the exertion against mankind for survival.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) is planning for a migration to a new habitat reported by his son Blue Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones) and general Rocket (Terry Notary). That night, the Alpha-Omega military faction (a stylized symbol as a wink to the nuclear bomb in 1970 Beneath) launches a covert mission, which is assisted by the ape traitors, Red (Ty Olsson) and Winter (Aleks Paunovic). The faction leader, known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), mistakes Blue Eyes for Caesar, killing him and his mother Cornelia (Judy Greer). Caesar is late—but not too late to momentarily face The Colonel, whose eyes shimmer his nasty rancor on the commando makeup. Will Caesar succumb to resentment and anger?

Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Andy Serkis, and Michael Adamthwaite

Initially, he does. Caesar commences the journey as planned but leaves the tribe to kill The Colonel. The crucial decision is imprudent as though it weren’t from the same Caesar we now. He disregards the odds, and what follows is a series of three disheartening incidents. They shake the ape king to his unstable core: one gives him the companion of a mute girl, Nova (at the expense of her loss); one hits him closer but only worsens his thoughts; the last one almost wrecks both Caesar’s will and his honored image in the eyes of his people.

Caesar could have gone on his one-man endeavor to certain death if not for the company of his most devoted allies. While his trusted advisor and also America’s favorite orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval), is the voice of moral sense against his recklessness, Rocket and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) are his loyal generals/men of action. The caravan later meets the comical Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who is not from Caesar’s colony. Absolutely not Binks-y or out of the blue, the new character provides the right amount of ease in this dismal situation via Zahn’s tactful, goofy performance. His appearance also proves the existence of ape factions growing on their own since the outbreak.

Karin Konoval and Amiah Miller

We don’t talk about the Apes movies without honoring its visual effects—props to the talented artists at Weta Digital for bringing together the technical flourishment, which has been perfected since the inclusion of motion capture into principle photography. The mo-cap finds its felicitous place in the environments, whether in the misty jungles or tableaus of snowy mountains or bleak metal jail cells. On the large-format Alexa 65, DP Michael Seresin, who brought a heartfelt feeling of apprehension to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was superb in creating the atmospheric contemplation. Thanks to him, the horse-riding and investigating, which could have been tedious, only reveres in the silently roaring poetry inside and outside Caesar’s mind. Visual storytelling guides us through long scenes where the only sound comes from the endearing score by Michale Giachinno (Dawn,* Inside Out*, Rogue One) and characters interact with sign language and eye contact. The movie respects viewers as characters communicate from heart to heart. In the same ingenious token, Reeves shot the movie in Vancouver during the rainy season, adding the climatic ambiance to its bleakness. He demonstrated his directorial mastery in action sequences—never losing track of the individuals, even side characters, on the battlefields. Also, worthy of mention is an overlooked aspect of film effects: the voice, specifically Serkis giving Caesar his succinct commands.

Steve Zahn as the comic relief Bad Ape

Because of humankind’s evolving role through notable surrogates—from charitable (Will Rodman in Rise) to relatably conflicted (Malcolm in Dawn) and now tyrannical with a fragment of remorse, War spends considerably less time with humans. Nonetheless, Reeves made use of this small window to create external pressures for Caesar. The Colonel isn’t just a sadistic leader; he has sinned, never stops grieving and still believes wholeheartedly in his cause. His motivation comes not only from his speech but also is realized in his actions, both now and before. Like the apes, he is also provoked by fear—one of falling behind the more adaptive species, which entwines him into Caesar’s arc. The midpoint feels like a lengthy exposition, but it comes at the right time—after a long first half of challenging clues about mute people and The Colonel’s cold-blooded acts. Luckily, Harrelson’s expression has enough convincing magnetism to elevate his character’s rivalry with Caesar and make this scene the least boring as possible.

As Caesar, out of indignation, neglects his whole tribe’s well-being, his fear facilitates an inevitable failure at The Colonel’s hand. A callback to the time of slavery and colonialization, his situation reminds war movie buff of The Bridge on the River Kwai (funnily enough, Bridge and Apes are both movie adaptations of Pierre Boulle’s novels). Aside from wacky poo hurling, the depressing situation features prominently the hand signal “Apes together strong!” to warm our hearts and raise the apes’ morale. Fans of the legendary Francis Ford Coppola will cheer when they see the Ape-pocalypse Now pun under the sewer. Another Apocalypse Now homage soon follows, though it’s a respectful nod in visual and thematic expressions. Otherwise, the core ideas fundamentally differ each other.

Red Donkey (Ty Olsson) and The Colonel (Woody Harrelson)

When Caesar falls to his lowest point, little Nova comes in to prove she’s not just an Easter Egg or a plot device. The poor girl has her life messed up by Caesar’s rash reaction to her caretaker, and as the righteousness inside him wrestles the shame, she prevents his rising anger from spilling over. For us audiences, she is the example of a voiceless being. Against the institutional hate (i.e. “otherness”) from the Colonel, she shows us the voice is not the only trait of humanity. She is impactful to the plot but also helps Caesar, at a personal level, hold onto his empathy before the climactic confrontation tests whether Caesar can rise above the temptation of revenge.

The ending unfolds like a cathartic relief for Caesar and fans, concluding his affectionate biblical epic and organically leaving the chance for spin-offs. War succeeds because the franchise sowed the seeds of redemption and destruction for Caesar from the first movie. There’s always been an ideological throughline running along with his character development. We deserve a movie this great after the summer fatigue of disappointing, vapid tentpoles. While the first two chronicle Caesar’s trials for a position in this world, War contains the most distraught and inspiring events of his tribulations. Rise, Dawn, War, together, strong!