The most criminally underrated science fiction offering of the last decade
Reviewed by Tim Leibbrandt
No one could have predicted that 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be as good as it was. Truth be told, I still consider it to be the most criminally underrated science fiction offering of the last decade.
Perhaps even more impressive and unexpected is just how good the two sequels (2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the new War for the Planet of the Apes) would turn out to be, rendering this new trilogy the first without a glaring weak point in quite some time.
The strength of all three films lies in outstanding, empathetic characters, engrossing story-telling, resonant themes and a phenomenal use of CGI motion capture in order to serve the story rather than to be flashy. Although they never feel restrained, the scope of each entry never spirals out of control and has always been centered on the physical and emotional journey of a core group of characters.
All three films have really been about the relationship between chimpanzee Caesar (portrayed by Andy Serkis) and Maurice the Orangutan (Karin Konoval) as they struggle to build a just and free society for the increasingly intelligent apes, trying to come to terms with the nature of violence without succumbing to the self-destructive tendencies of humanity. In War this comes front and center as Caesar grapples with unbearable loss at the hands of Woody Harrelson’s thoroughly despicable Colonel.
Caesar serves as a vehicle for the filmmakers to look at the mythologizing of visionary revolutionary figures into near religious archetypes. Watching his journey from a carefree baby chimp swinging about in James Franco’s attic in Rise through to his current position as reluctant pacifist leader of the apes forced into armed struggle for survival has been utterly heart-breaking.
Themes of racism, intolerance, the burden of forgiveness, and the all-consuming destructive force of violence are examined in incredibly sophisticated ways; conveyed through the narrative rather than shoehorned-in by way of exposition. These are emotionally taxing and heavy films to be sure, but all the more important because of it.
What is particularly impressive is how the filmmakers have skirted the line between fan service and accessibility.
All three films are full of Easter eggs and clever references/setups to the originals, but understanding these are not a requisite to enjoying them, it just adds another layer of enjoyment. In fact each entry in this new trilogy can be watched as a self-contained story and thoroughly appreciated; a rarity in the piecemeal teaser approach of most franchise world-building these days.
In a nutshell, you owe it to yourself to watch all three films of the new Planet of the Apes trilogy. From beginning to end, they form an emotional, cathartic and complex story which has something to say for itself.
In successfully wrapping up the series’ themes and character arcs in such a striking, powerful and unpredictable way, War in particular forms one of the strongest conclusions to a film trilogy ever.