First, humanity overreached in its desire to conquer its own frailty. Instead of victory, it was overcome by the very nature it sought to command. In so doing, creation repaid its stewards for their failure by beginning to supplant them.
Second, humanity struggled to survive, unable to rebuild the world it had ruined, and challenged for dominance by the newcomer that it had created in its arrogance.
Now, humanity sees itself in an apocalyptic conflict, a zero-sum game where mercy and moral courage are considered a hindrance. Now, humanity is at war – a war for the planet, a war to stop it from becoming a Planet of Apes.
War for the Planet of the Apes is the concluding chapter of the Caesar trilogy of The Planet of the Apes films. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) depicted the origins of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the other super-intelligent apes. Scientists working on a cure for degenerative neurological conditions devised a genetic treatment that gave its ape test subjects enhanced intelligence. But when used on humans, despite early promise, it ultimately brought about their deaths. It turned into the simian flu, a pandemic that wiped out much of the world’s human population.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) depicted the world in the aftermath of the devastation. Some humans survive living in increasingly primitive conditions, while the apes, led by Caesar, begin to develop a culture and a civilisation of their own. Conflict between the two species, led by factions that see the other as an automatic enemy that needs to be wiped out, brings about tragedy.
War for the Planet of the Apes depicts the ongoing conflict between apes and man. The apes, still led by Caesar, are fighting to survive against the genocidal campaign waged by the Alpha-Omega group, a paramilitary group with an apocalyptic, pseudo-religious ideology, led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). Caesar is haunted by the memory of Koba (Toby Kebbell), the ape who could not let go of his hatred of humanity and so rebelled against Caesar and began the war with man. The Alpha-Omega are aided by “donkeys”, apes who once followed Koba, but have switched sides, believing that the only way to survive the Colonel’s wrath is to fight with him.
The Colonel has indoctrinated his soldiers with a blasphemous apocalyptic ideology where the only resolution to the conflict between apes and man is the complete destruction of one or the other. For him it is a logical position – the apes, in time, will outmatch humanity, and so the only way to stop that is to wipe them out.
Caesar strives to be a noble leader, one who shows mercy to his enemies, one who fights a war purely to defend his people. But a mission of the Colonel’s has tragic results and Caesar puts aside his discipline to seek revenge. Along the way he and his companions encounter a young mute girl (Amiah Miller) – later to be christened “Nova” – whom the apes take in, and who helps them. They also come across Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a comic and slightly nutty chimpanzee who provides the only light notes in this otherwise dark and tragical drama.
War for the Planet of the Apes is an appropriately gripping and tragic finale to the Caesar trilogy. It completes his story from being the first of his kind, to the leader of his kind, to the mythic saviour of his kind. Writer Mark Bomback and writer-director Matt Reeves drew on a range of cinematic sources for the film from Spartacus to The Great Escape, The Outlaw Josey Wales to Bridge on the River Kwai, Apocalypse Now to The Ten Commandments. In so doing they pay tribute to Charlton Heston, star of the original, masterful Planet of the Apes, by presenting this movie as a sort of ape Biblical epic, with Caesar becoming the Moses of his people.
The computer-generated imagery, or “digital makeup” as Andy Serkis calls it, continues to astound. The emotion that one sees in the apes reminds us of our humanity, and our need to be humane in our treatment of others. The humans, on the other hand, illustrate Chesterton’s point that logical purity can lead to insanity and inhumanity.
The Apes movies are double-edged. They are realistic enough to know, and show, that brokenness is part of existence and that it is from the brokenness that conflict arises, and that this conflict will likely reinforce itself. But they still have hope that it is possible to build a better world, a hope worth sharing.