Where Dawn fell down was in the vast discrepancy between the two opposing parties. It split 60-40 between the apes and the humans, and while every moment with the apes was mesmerizing, the humans weren’t given the opportunity to break out of their stock characterizations. War has arguably three human roles, and one’s a mute. For his grand finale, Reeves gets where his bread is buttered and dedicates almost the entire film to Caesar et al. The characters in the world have a sense of humans’ eventual doom and the man behind the camera acknowledges it now as well. This means more time spent with the soft-eyed and wise orang Maurice (Karin Konoval) and with Zahn’s surprisingly affecting Bad Ape, certainly the most physically-inferior ape that’s ever appeared in the series. He’s desperate for companionship and also a demonstration of Caesar’s innate goodness. His mission does not entail having a disruptive travel mate, but Bad Ape still comes along. Bad Ape conversely makes the presence of the mute girl somewhat extraneous, but Reeves finds ways to tie her into the plot anyways.
The apes find a worthy adversary in the Colonel. As played by Harrelson, he’s the unhinged leader of a millenarian death cult, a martinet at the end of the world. There’s no more trying to live side by side with the humans after the events of Dawn, and Reeves has crafted a villain to fit the Manichean stakes the franchise has arrived at. The Colonel’s not even looking forward to a day when the fighting is over and humans can potentially rebuild. He and his men are playing spoiler in full knowledge that their days as a species are ending, but they’ll be damned if the apes get to rule over the wreckage. He’s even found ways to co-opt the apes into service, as those apes who took the vanquished Koba’s side in Dawn are just as nihilistic in their opposition to Caesar as the Colonel is. There’s no victorious future for them either, only further subjugation and humiliation in the service of their vengeful goal. Have I mentioned that this is a bleak film?
In an unsurprising turn for what is essentially a summer blockbuster, the dark tone lessens as the film gets more conventional. Upon the discovery of the captured apes, War gets briefly darker in turning to slavery and Holocaust imagery before getting lighter and dumber as an escape attempt begins in earnest. The darkness is out of place for the genre and the lightness breaks the tone before a more predictable battle caps the film. As the film loses power towards its end, the blatant Moses metaphor becomes thuddingly apparent. Caesar’s got blood on his hands, the bad guys are incapable of showing mercy, several characters have lost their first born sons, water hazards play a big role towards the climax, and the good guys are looking for a homeland past a desert. There’s allusion and there’s plagiarism, and War increasingly feels like the latter.
Even as War’s third act betrays the power of what’s come before, Serkis’ Caesar is a steady hand at the center. He gets a lot of single tears to play, and even under all that digital technology, each is affecting. This character has been a sizable achievement for him and for the industry in general, and Reeves no longer makes Caesar share the spotlight with other characters. He’s the unqualified lead as the franchise ends. I’ve never ended up loving any of the three Apes films, but there is much to love in them. While James Cameron has been toiling away on Avatar sequels, this franchise has usurped his place as the king of motion capture. B