One of the things that distinguishes humans from all other animals is our propensity to wage war. Other animals fight, and might even carry on organized, long-form hostilities upon one another. But none of them do it with the sheer imagination, effort and ingenuity that homo sapiens does. We wage war not just for resources, and not just to defend ourselves, but to give us purpose when all else has failed. When we lost our hope for the future, we do not embrace peace. We double down on bloodshed. Because nothing motivates us so much as the notion of destroying a common enemy, even if killing the guy next door won’t ensure a better harvest or bring back missing trees or replenish exhausted water. Somewhere out there is a villain in our hearts, and we will stop at nothing to find it in someone and justify their slaughter. It is who we are. It is what we do. And it is the heartbreaking truth at the center of War for the Planet of the Apes, the spellbinding conclusion to the Rise/Dawn/War trilogy that is not only the best iteration of the Planet of the Apes franchise by a wide margin, but some of the most effective science fiction recently put to screen, period. Maybe somebody will top it once apes start working cameras.
The story takes place two years after the chimpanzee Caesar and his tribe of intelligent apes survive an initial clash with the surviving humans of post-apocalypse San Francisco. Since then, things have only gotten worse. As Caesar’s tribe grows into a small nation, a specialized human military force called Alpha-Omega has made its mission to hunt down and destroy every last ape it can find. And what’s worse, it makes use of intelligent apes who were once loyal to Koba—a turncoat who betrayed Caesar and started this unnecessary war—and who now voluntarily enslave themselves to humanity. As Caesar’s people prepare for an exodus across the desert, their departure is interrupted by a devastating raid orchestrated by Alpha-Omega’s vicious leader, the Colonel. To buy time for his people to make a clean getaway, but moreso for the sake of revenge, Caesar embarks on a mission to confront the Colonel that soon yields unexpected results on a horrific, tragic scale. The Colonel’s war to exterminate apes is more than a campaign of revenge. It is the swan song of a dying people that is hellbent on taking humanity’s successors along with it. The question is, how do you fight a war with an adversary for whom the point isn’t to prevail, but to find purpose in dying? Caesar is about to find out.
War for the Planet of the Apes does the nearly impossible by delivering the most thought-provoking installment of Planet’s reboot series while also delivering its biggest set pieces. Equal parts summer blockbuster and Shakespearean tragedy, War provides us with a somber meditation that once let out of its bottle, war never goes back inside willingly. And it is a sad reminder that no cause, no matter how just, is immune from the treachery of those too afraid to fight for their own future. But more than all that, this movie gives us an unfiltered look at a world in transition, with one people in its final days while another people’s story is just beginning. It’s during this critical juncture where one may pass along to the next that which most defines them so the inheritors of the world might take it forth into the future. But not all inheritances are worth accepting.
With that in mind, this movie’s heroic end comes at a high price, and not just because of the characters we lose along the way. By the time we reach the closing credits, we see that the viral threat which turned this world upside down goes both ways. Human civilization may have been laid low by the simian flu, but along the way, something of humanity has infected the apes as well. If war is the ailment of mankind, then the way in which we see Caesar and his apes take to it suggests that humanity itself is a communicable disease with a 100% mortality rate. The sun may shine upon Caesar’s people, eventually, the same sickness that was within us is within them. We can only hope that Caesar’s children will one day find the cure that eluded those who came before them.
The moment of truth comes when Caesar finally confronts the Colonel face to face, only to see that there is no longer any need to fight one another. The thing the Colonel feared most wasn’t that the apes might prevail and take this world by force. It was that humanity was already living out its last days and he didn’t want to be around to see them come to pass. This story takes place in a decimated world; the humans and apes could have lived for generations without getting in each other’s way. But for men like the Colonel, war isn’t a tool of last resort. It is a reason for being. And even though the enemy he really wants to face is immune to bullets and bombs, he’ll content himself with hunting and killing that which most reminds him of why humanity is in its current, downward state. As Caesar stands over the Colonel, he has the power to do whatever he likes to this man who brought so much death and destruction to the apes, and even to Caesar’s own family. So what does Caesar do? He gives the Colonel what he and his followers have wanted all along: a way out. As Caesar watches the Colonel’s final scene unfold, we can only agree with what he seems to be thinking: What took you so long? And why did you have to bring us into it?