It is a truth universally acknowledged that a sequel is rarely better than the original. It is a truth multiversally acknowledged that second sequels are almost never so. I can only think of a handful of trilogies where each film has hit a high watermark. From recent years, Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ movies come to mind, as does Toy Story. We can now add the modern Planet of the Apes franchise to this exclusive list.
Rise introduces us to a super-intelligent ape forced by circumstances into captivity, and the subsequent uprising he leads to escape his ill-treatment. Dawn tells of the establishment of an early ape civilization, cut off from a severely depleted human race. War depicts the conflict between the apes and the remaining humans. (The word ‘war’ is a bit misleading, but Skirmish for the Planet of the Apes might not have been as marketable)
These films may feature our simian cousins in the title, but as with all good stories, we like them because they are really about us. In Rise, the apes learned how bad humans could be, and left to form their own Utopian society. With Dawn came the crushing realization that just as there are good humans and bad humans, there are good apes and bad apes too. War ties this together beautifully: A good ape suffers a great tragedy, and sets out on a path of retribution. When he has taken his revenge, how much difference will there be between him and a bad human?
These are wonderful explorations of morality, and incredibly, the movies rely almost exclusively on CGI animals to bring them to life. Through the magic of motion-capture technology, behind-the-scenes actors (what a concept!) are able to transfer complex, nuanced expressions to the faces of the on-screen apes. War contains some of the most moving scenes you’ll see at the cinema all year, and everything on the screen will be computer-generated.
At the heart of everything is Andy Serkis, often referred to as the greatest actor you’ve never seen. Best known for his iconic performance as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, Serkis is the undisputed King Kong of motion-capture work. (Literally, he played King Kong too.) In Caesar the ape, he has created a great protagonist – regal and intimidating, but deeply emotional and empathetic – an alpha male who isn’t afraid to shed a tear. The time has come to give Serkis that Oscar nomination.
Assuming there won’t be a fourth film (And I hope there isn’t), War for the Planet of the Apes has concluded one of the most unconventional trilogies of modern times. The movies have bucked so many cliches of studio filmmaking. The titles are unwieldy and cumbersome to say out loud. The films contain very little dialogue. The animals are not cute, and are often frightening. There is no big movie star – heck, there are barely any humans with speaking parts. All these things are supposed to keep people away from theaters, and yet the three films have quietly amassed more than $1.2 billion between them so far. It will probably be closer to $2 billion once War has finished its theatrical run. The success of this trilogy should embolden studios into discarding industry myths and trusting good stories. Audiences aren’t stupid – we’ve evolved from apes, after all.
Rating: 4/5 stars
PS: I know humans didn’t evolve from apes, but from a common ancestor. There’s no need to get all Ross Geller about it.