The Planet of the Apes franchise takes a dim view of mankind. 20th Century Fox's reboot trilogy essentially operates on the depressing (but increasingly logical) premise that man will be the architect of his own downfall — and when he's done, a smarter species will be there to expose us for what we really are. In the world of Apes, man is primitive.
If it's a strong conceit, it's also an uncomfortable one. When it comes to summer blockbusters, people generally enjoy films that trigger some sense of joy — feel-good movies like Wonder Woman or Baby Driver. Audiences aren't aching to be challenged, so to present them with a vision of a bleak future and ask them to have a good time is a major challenge in itself.
But War for the Planet of the Apes has little interest in playing by the rules, and the future it presents is the bleakest of all — so what's behind the pessimistic worldview of the Apes saga, what does it suggest about our own future, and why do we keep coming back for more?
These movies weren't always so ambitious. The reboot began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, a movie James Franco predicted in an interview with Playboy would get bad reviews, simply because he was in it. He was wrong, but the apes themselves, specifically the hyper-intelligent Caesar (Andy Serkis), were undeniably that film's great strength.
When Matt Reeves came on board to direct sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, he took what worked best about Rise — the digital effects, the world it had built around Caesar — and dramatically raised the stakes, zipping forward to a near future when the Simian Flu had ravaged Earth's human population, tapping into a certain sense of paranoia (or perhaps fear grounded in truth) about what will happen when man is no longer king on the planet he has ruled for millennia.
In War for the Planet of the Apes, the human cast is once again all new — Reeves has never been shy about the fact the apes are his focus, Caesar his embittered protagonist. It's in this movie, the apex of the trilogy, that the parallels between the grim fictional future inhabited by the apes and the world in which we live now, a place almost stranger than fiction, begin to make themselves clear.
The Colonel, a possibly deranged military leader played by Woody Harrelson, is intent on building a wall to keep man and ape apart, a piece of symbolism lifted straight from the Bible but given unexpected real-life relevance by President Donald Trump's deep resentment of Mexican immigration to the US. The Colonel was clearly created as a homage to Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kurtz, and if Francis Ford Coppola's movie was a comment on the damage done by the Vietnam War, Reeves's film seems to reflect our own anxieties of an impending WWIII, one Trump seems frighteningly eager to trigger.
And if every frame of War looks like a carefully staged piece of art, with its invitingly snowy vistas and its impeccable, truly lifelike VFX work, there's a degree of sparseness to the cinematography that seems to hint at nature's willingness to take back the planet from those who seek to destroy it.
That's not to say that the Apes saga is breaking new ground in switching the roles and asking us to root against rather than for humanity. This year's Kong: Skull Island, and various other monster movies before it, flirted gamely with the idea that while man is easily corrupted, sometimes beyond redemption, there's a certain degree of purity in the animal kingdom that renders it superior. But it is perhaps the first piece of mainstream cinema ballsy enough to pose the question of whether mankind really deserves to survive at all, or whether other species and the planet would be better off without our footprint.
Depressing as it is that a question like that should feel relatable, it's also distinctly rare to watch a blockbuster made with this much intelligence. War has far bigger ideas than the explosive CGI spectacles that come and go every week, making money in China and leaving a lasting impression nowhere. For Reeves, cinema isn't a distraction or a two-hour break from reality — it exists to hold up a dark mirror to our world. That's what makes this series so unique, and it's perhaps the reason we're so enamored by it. Maybe we don't really want to feel uplifted after all. Maybe we want to feel like we know what's coming — and maybe we want to do something about it.
War For The Planet Of The Apes hits theaters Friday, July 14.