Reboots, remakes and re-imaginings often seem as if they’re all Hollywood has to offer these days. Studios recycle brands and intellectual properties hoping to generate new money from familiar names. But relying largely on nostalgia doesn’t necessarily create something new.
That’s what has made the rebooted Planet of the Apes movie series such an achievement. Planet of the Apes was a familiar name to those who grew up with the movies, TV series, cartoons and toys. It was an established sci-fi brand. So a modernized update was inevitable. And with advancements in make-up and special effects, a new version would surely be better. And War of the Planet of the Apes maintains the quality that the first two films in this reboot series established.
In 2001, Tim Burton delivered a remake (“reboot” wasn’t the preferred term back then) starring Mark Wahlberg that was rather successful, earning $360 million at the worldwide box office. With incredible prosthetic make-up and costuming, Burton’s film was very much a remake of the original, much of what was expected from a project like that back then.
The movie ended with a Twilight Zone-type puzzler that was a tribute to the original 1968 film may have been too clever for its own good. Whatever sequel it may have promised was probably too ambitious for the time, and thus was never made.
Ten years later, 20th Century Fox tried again, but it wasn’t enough to just remake an old movie anymore. Properties had to be reimagined and rebooted. Prequels were in vogue, attempting to tell the story that hadn’t been told before. Origin stories had become the rage with Batman Begins, Casino Royale and J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek film.
Rather than take another crack at astronauts traveling to what they believe is another planet, but turns out to be a future version of Earth in which apes have taken over as the dominant lifeform, writers Rick Jaffe and Amanda Silver opted to look back at the past. How did a planet of the apes come to be? What was the cause of the apes taking over? How did humanity become nearly extinct?
So 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes went to the very beginning, and as is often the case in sci-fi, the willingness of humans’ to tamper with nature may have led to its own demise. Directed by Rupert Wyatt and starring James Franco, Rise was better than virtually anyone would have guessed. The movie was a compelling tale of a man attempting to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease to save his own father. The chimpanzee who was the test subject gives birth to an offspring, and he ends up developing a higher intelligence as a result of the drug.
What truly made this movie special, however, was the impressive digital effects by Weta that allowed the production to create its apes. No actors in suits for this one. Better yet, the technology allowed the lead ape, Caesar, to show the emotion and expression that Andy Serkis was displaying in his motion-capture performance. A digital ape was truly a character.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes ended on a note that could have led to the original 1968 film if that’s where Fox had chosen to leave it. The same drug that increased the apes’ intelligence was also fatally toxic to humans and a patient zero inadvertently spread the virus around the world through his job as an airline pilot. OK, that’s how the planet of the apes was created. That could’ve been the end of the story. But Rise was a hit with critics and audiences, so a sequel was put into development and the reboot series became even better.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was arguably (in my mind, anyway) one of the best movies of 2014. It took the premise established in Rise and progressed to the next natural step. Caesar’s intelligence was fully developed. He had established himself as the leader of the genetically enhanced apes and helped to establish a colony near San Francisco. Yet one of the apes who was mistreated during his experiments, Koba (Toby Kebbell), could never get over his hatred of humans and rallied those who held a similar grudge to join him in a war on humanity. If there was ever a chance for humans and apes to co-exist peacefully, Koba killed the possibility by attacking humans and causing a deep division among the apes.
Another development that resulted in Dawn rising above its sci-fi trappings and showing it could be a compelling drama in addition to a blockbuster action franchise was director Matt Reeves taking over for Rupert Wyatt. With writer Mark Bomback, Reeves didn’t just want to tell a sci-fi story about the battle between apes and humans, one that would move the overall narrative even closer to the 1968 film.
This was a story about mistrust and hatred, and how destructive such emotions could be among a society. Humans and apes possibly could have co-existed peacefully if there was trust. But with humans feeling threatened and apes wanting revolution, that would never happen. War was inevitable, and that’s where Dawn leaves off. A call has gone to the military. A battle is inevitable.
When War for the Planet of the Apes picks up the story again, humans have pushed back with their military might and sent the apes into hiding. But one unit of soldiers, led by the bloodthirsty Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson), wants to take Caesar out and either wipe out the apes who follow him or turn them into slave labor. A raid on the apes’ colony leads to several losses, including some that are personal to Caesar. That compels the apes’ leader to become consumed with revenge. He’s no longer interested in being a leader or inspiration. He wants McCullough to pay for what he’s done, not thinking about what the repercussions might mean to those he’s tried to lead and protect.
Interestingly, McCullough’s methods and crazed objectives have also brought him into conflict with other parts of the military. An opposing faction wants to wipe McCullough and his soldiers out before he can achieve his goals. It’s not that they want to protect the apes. They want to protect themselves and what’s left of humanity. Just as mistrust, paranoia and hatred threatened to divide the apes, so does it cause a schism among the humans. It’s possible that Caesar could lead the apes to safety and let humanity eat itself. But revenge burns too strong within him. Besides, the apes will likely never be safe as long as the humans perceive them as a threat.
As with the previous two films in the series, War doesn’t just settle for spectacle in favor over story. Caesar’s motivations are valid and compelling, as they are among those who follow him. The attention to detail in showing the expressions on these characters’ faces is a singular achievement in digital effects. Reeves treats these apes, particularly Caesar, like any other actor, using close-ups to show the emotions they’re experiencing. That those expressions are digitally created (yet with Serkis’ performance providing structure) is a continuing marvel among these films. A digitally created ape makes you feel for him, relate to what he’s going through.
But Bomback and Reeves also make McCullough equally compelling. He’s unquestionably cruel and evil, perhaps pushed to those extremes by what’s happened to his species and his family. Yet he also has delusions of military grandeur, as best displayed by the outpost his unit has created along the California border. A self-proclaimed student of history, he fancies himself among the great leaders, placed in that role by what’s happened in the world. Harrelson conveys his crazed conviction wonderfully, even if he’s a character you’re sure to hate.
War for the Planet of the Apes might not be quite as good as Dawn was. The story here tries to go for the heart a bit more than the previous film with new characters like Nova (Amiah Miller), the little girl discovered and adopted by the apes. (She’s also a nod to the original films, in which she appears as an adult.) Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape is also more of a comic relief presence than we’ve seen throughout this series. Both characters are probably necessary because the overall tone is so bleak, and there needs to be an emotional break among all this rage and hatred. Fortunately, Reeves makes sure they don’t do anything more than that, while still serving the story.
The question now is where the Planet of the Apes series goes. Much like the previous two films, War ends on a note that could arguably lead to the 1968 film. There’s also an opening for further stories that could be told. But without Reeves, I’m not certain I’d like to see anymore Apes films. He might be done after two movies and is moving on to The Batman next, which could occupy his attention for years, especially if he’s on board for more than one Batfleck movie in the DC Comics cinematic universe.
Besides, there may be no more story to tell. We’ve now seen what happened to the world that allowed a planet of apes to be created. Maybe there’s a story to be told in how they became more of a militant, weaponized force. War introduces some characters who are part of the original saga, but this reboot narrative and the singular achievement it represents could be left alone now. More build-up and explanation isn’t really necessary. Especially if the concern is just making another Planet of the Apes movie, rather than advancing the story of arguably the best reboot trilogy ever made.