A quick recap. First there was 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in which sad scientist James Franco accidentally created a genius ape in Caesar, and his colleague mad scientists accidentally created and released a supervirus that killed most of humanity. Then there was 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, set 10 years later, in which the uneasy detente between the growing new civilization of smart apes and a small cluster of surviving humans was shattered by mistrust and unhealable pain on both sides.
And now we have War for the Planet of the Apes, set a further five years on, in which we make the rather startling discovery that these movies have been telling the epic of Caesar, a sweeping tale of mythological scope, the creation story of apekind and its first leader, a chimpanzee Moses. That seems fairly obvious in retrospect, yet it never felt that way until somewhere around the middle of this movie, when I came to the even more startling realization that almost every significant character here is nonhuman. Looking back from a perch at the film’s very moving ending, I see now that the humans in the story have been winnowed away until we root entirely for apes here in War (that they have a small human child hanger-on is almost incidental), and that the villains, the ones we root against, are human. (That those bad guys have a few turncoat ape helpers is also incidental.)
Just on a level of pure cinematic storytelling, War for the Planet of the Apes is a marvel, then: The empathy machine of movies works to turn us against our own species, and engages us wholly with multiple other species: chimps, gorillas and orangutans. This is partly a function of the smart screenwriting — by director Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback, both returning from Dawn — but far more one of astonishing CGI wizardry, which has advanced dramatically even from only three years ago. The nuance of emotion and intelligence that crosses Caesar’s face, a combination of a motion-captured performance by the phenomenal Andy Serkis and sublime FX work, is unconditionally realistic; that Caesar seems to have Serkis’ own soulful, doleful eyes doesn’t hurt, either. We never have any doubt that Caesar is an authentic person.
War’s story revolves around Caesar’s ape community coming under attack from a desperate human army led by a truly chilling Woody Harrelson, whose base Caesar sets out to infiltrate while he sends his people away as refugees to a place of hoped-for safety. Nothing goes as planned and even greater human-fueled disaster strikes the apes, but the plot, as fine and as gripping as it is, feels secondary in consequence to how simply engrossing all those nonhuman primate characters are. This is particularly true of the beautiful mo-cap and voice performance by Steve Zahn that imbues Bad Ape, a solitary chimp zoo survivor whom Caesar encounters, with grand pathos and sweet eager humor: He is a creature — a person — who has been driven a little mad by loneliness and is now overenthusiastic in his enjoyment of new company. And he is a sheer delight.
I cannot recall another movie that wasn’t a Pixar cartoon that so convincingly put nonhumans at its center. That alone would make War for the Planet of the Apes a triumph of science fiction storytelling on the big screen. But its unspoken yet expansive philosophy about the personhood of nonhuman beings and its unexpectedly optimistic view of a nonhuman future for planet Earth — so very different from previous tellings of this story — add to that triumph as well. There are hints of room for a second trilogy, one that could recall the 1968 movie and its ’70s sequels if, we can foresee, on a less dystopian trajectory; there are characters here whose names are echoes from the original films, and could become new versions of the same in a future continuation of the story of Caesar’s people. And in a triumph for Hollywood blockbusters, the prospect of more movies in this series does not fill me with dread. I’d really love to see them, in fact.