And so it comes to it, the final confrontation between man and apes, the conclusion of the trilogy unexpected in its depth and achievement coming as it did after five films of diminishing quality between 1968 and 1973 (Planet, Beneath, Escape, Conquest, Battle) and Tim Burton’s misguided 2001 reimagining of the original. Those were swept to distant memory by Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Matt Reeves 2014 sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a story now concluded by Reeves with War for the Planet of the Apes.
It is fifteen years since the pandemic of the Simian Flu which swept the world and culled homo sapiens while boosting the intelligence of the various species of great ape; seemingly almost every surviving human is a solder intent on revenge, determined to wipe out the species they hold responsible, the knowledge presumably lost that the triggering agent, the ALZ-113 virus, was in fact genetically engineered by humans even if it could be argued that it was in the apes that it mutated and incubated.
Heavily armed and using apes as scouts and trackers, collaborators who once followed the militaristic teachings of the renegade bonobo Koba and are now exiled from the colonies, against the apes on horseback with wooden spears their offensive is devastating but through sheer numbers the apes repel the attack, Caesar (Andy Serkis returning to complete his journey) still offering peace if the humans will agree.
A slow elegy for a dying world told for the first time primarily from the point of view of the apes, Caesar lives in nature among his family and wishes nothing more than to be left alone: “Leave us the woods and the killing can stop” is the message he sends back with the few survivors, but he is not fighting a rational enemy.
The opening battle almost the only scene in the first hour featuring human voices this is not to entice sympathy, showing a cold and remorseless slaughter conducted by a species fearful it is teetering on the brink of extinction and lashing out blindly at anyone and anything, the apes a more convenient target than an unseen infection which has precipitated what may be perhaps inevitable collapse of human civilisation.
Regardless of their lack of complicity in events, as the beneficiaries of the effects of the virus it is the simians who will become the apex species should that happen, and for that reason Colonel McCulloch (Zombieland‘s Woody Harrelson) of the Alpha-Omega army faction refuses Caesar’s offer, personally leading an incursion into the heart of the apes’ territory. Forced to send his people across the mountains to seek new territory and safety, Caesar and a small band of apes set out to locate and confront the Colonel in his stronghold.
McCulloch having turned the Alpha-Omega into a cult of which he is the remorseless zealot, his mania expresses itself in seeing enemies in anything which goes against the order of God as he was brought up to believe in it. “Nature has been punishing us for our arrogance,” he says, but nature will not tolerate a man who wishes to build walls and fuel wars.
Fully digital and created through motion capture, the apes are never anything other than utterly convincing screen presences, the characterisations and range of perfect expressions astonishing, leaping across the uncanny valley to true life with the agility expected of their kind, Reeves embracing the technology and the future with sensitivity and intelligence quite unlike his antagonist McCulloch who clings to the past and rails against the future.
Among themselves the apes sign or speak their own language; only when they discuss war do they resort to English, a concept framed in the language which has subverted their thought. There is an inherent gentleness to them: responsible for orphaning a child in the wild (newcomer Amiah Miller as Nova, wordlessly endearing), they take her with them in a story which mutates as fast as the virus, war film, moral drama, prison breakout, action film, Mark Bomback and Reeves’ script never feeling rushed or forced other than perhaps the slapstick comedy of Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape.
At one hundred and forty minutes this is the final part of a vast narrative and there will be no further chances to go back and pick up threads, so the opportunity it taken to do it right, yet nor does it feel like the the third in a trilogy, telling an immediate story which is complete in itself without knowledge of what has gone before, the ape families the only continuing characters and self-explanatory while still providing a satisfying and conclusive finale.
War for the Planet of the Apes is on general release and also screening in 3D