Trilogy Anatomy: War for the Planet of the Apes, by Tober Corrigan

21 Jul

Upon being asked after the release of the Dark Knight if he had a third installment planned, Christopher Nolan replied with asking ironically how many good third movies there were. Of course, Nolan eventually did complete his trilogy, whether it being against his better judgment or not depending on who one talks to. Throughout movie history, the essential functions of the third film in a series have either been as a fitting and satisfactory end to a particular storyline (Lord of the Rings: Return of the King), a disappointing but nevertheless conclusive entry (Godfather III), or a debacle so big as to necessitate a reset to the franchise (Superman III/Spiderman 3, etc., etc.). In anticipation of another highly-anticipated third film, War for the Planet of the Apes, this weekly series will cover famous third films, infamous third films and otherwise, exploring how trilogy-enders or other types of third films have functioned in relation to its series.

Rare is it for a film trilogy in the modern Hollywood tradition to satisfy its loyal audience and yet go beyond the expected. We’ve seen several high profile third films of recent (Spiderman 3 and The Dark Knight Rises come immediately to mind) not do this. They either leaned too greatly into what made their predecessors great, to the point of feeling like a retread, or they strayed far from the formula but with sloppy execution. Even the more successful ones, like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, had their detractors, the common criticism often being that the narrative took too long, got too indulgent and exhausting in its attempt to be serious fare.

War for the Planet of the Apes does well to avoid the general problems of its contemporaries and gives the series a smooth and definitive landing. The story begins in the thick of the war between human and ape made inevitable in the last film. Caesar and his unit are hidden away; the army is making it their mission to uncover him. When they finally do find the hideout, tragedy strikes, and Caesar, for the first time in the series, takes it upon himself to enact personal vengeance for wrong done. This film is more Caesar’s movie than either of the past two ever wanted to be. It’s no secret that the first in the prequel series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was a studio gamble. Did enough people still care about a franchise popular several decades ago and brought disappointingly to life at the turn of the century? As a result, that film felt torn between giving the lead to James Franco’s vanilla character or to Andy Serkis’ motion capture Caesar. By the second time around, director Matt Reeves re-oriented the film’s mythology around the apes, though not without some extensive though uninteresting asides with the humans. Finally, enough confidence in the filmmaking and good faith on the part of the audience has allowed us a film that is primarily about the apes, and always about Caesar. Most unthinkable in today’s film climate is the fact that the script never even alludes to a passing of the torch from Caesar to new characters to allow for some eventual spin off series. The one character who could have been that for this series is effectively sidelined early on; the screenwriters want this to be all Caesar. This results in the most interior, psychological, and morally complex iteration of the character.

Reeves and company never sacrifice epic scope or epic destruction (the finale proves this) to accomplish this simpler approach to the big budget blockbuster. Yet, this series from the start was always in a double bind. They had to both complete a three film arc (one that, regrettably, doesn’t feel as inevitable as many of the films covered earlier in my trilogy series) and had to feed the story directly into the 1968 original. The reason for this series’ existence, rising conflict between man and animal, often feels at “war” with the need to conveniently end, or at least hint at ending, the human race. The long derailments this last film must make to accommodate its prequel nature often spoils the narrative purity of Caesar’s journey.

This trilogy, and most trilogies heavy on genre, are at their worst when explaining rather than showing the mythology. In War, this work is done principally out of the mouth of the villainous Colonel without a name, played effectively by a game Woody Harrelson. He is introduced to us as a one dimensional bad guy, yet later on we realize we were only seeing him as Caesar saw him. As the Colonel reveals his backstory and becomes a more complicated and engrossing figure to us, the film’s plot suffers, feeling more shoehorned and strained by the weight of all he is telling us. It seems that not even the Planet of the Apes prequel franchise is immune to the now common Hollywood practice of info dumping. And the opening, in a radical departure from the nearly wordless opening several minutes of Dawn, features a scene so egregiously there for depositing exposition into our laps, so obviously shot, edited, and screened to ‘catch us up.’ This has proven to be a popular trait for third films, as others like The Dark Knight Rises, have also fallen into the trap of needing to catch its audiences up to story elements they should have known from seeing the second film. The three sets of long text that open War, explaining to us essentially why each film was given their titles, feels pulpy, outdated, and too much like a bad studio note.

Yet, the above criticisms must be understood as minor parts of the larger film. For the most part, the action and plot dovetail beautifully off the ideas and motivations set up in Rise and Dawn, always being helped along the way with arresting visuals. Following another staple of successful trilogies, each film gets more technically impressive and aesthetically controlled. War is polished, with certain set-pieces making me half-wish I had invested in the 3-D glasses. The technology too has grown leaps and bounds since 2011’s Rise, a technology that even then seemed light-years ahead of what had come before. Steve Zahn’s comic relief Bad Ape character is perhaps the most absorbing of all the creations, as the mannerisms and face type look and feel like a direct extension of the comic actor himself. More impressive than all, at least within the theatrical context, is the sound mixing. I cannot recall the last time a film felt more aurally operatic. Whether an explosion, an avalanche, or a rallying charge of apes on horseback, the series has never felt this dreadful, this fraught with tension, this gleefully bombastic.

Yes, War for the Planet of the Apes is a war film. There are passing references made to Apocalypse Now both in a visual gag and in the Colonel character as slightly indebted to Brando’s Kurtz. But it is as much a Shakespearean supernatural tragedy, complete with Caesar receiving visions from the ghost(?) of Koba meant to haunt, to make Caesar consider what he is to potentially become. It is also a prisoner of war film. It is an escape film (though, so was Dawn, making its presence in the third film the most laborious of its 140 minute running time). It is even a revenge Western. The film is perhaps too many things; the final showdown is definitely too long, too concerned with working out its logistical nightmare. But most third films, especially in such big budget fare, must do these things. We, the audience, expect to embrace the totality of the spectacle when we are told it is the finale. We expect to be given too much of a good thing.

This finely tuned machine of a series has been going for six years now, both growing in popularity and yet always staying under the radar compared to the Marvel and DC summer box office super-giants. The Apes prequel trilogy has always impressed, not just because of its cutting-edge technology or its timely dystopian themes, but because its greatest technical and thematic merits always were in service to the film’s emotional strength. Just pay attention to any number of the soul-stirring soundtrack cues in the third film to understand what I mean. All three films hold the consummate craftsmanship and democratic appeal that the best of mid-twentieth century Hollywood gave us in response to television. In a world of digital content and hyper-serialized film universes, there’s something heroically old-fashioned about the beginning, middle, and end story of one ape, with an insistence that the story could only ever really be as big as that ape’s heart. War encapsulated all the virtues that the trilogy stood for, and, like any good bedtime story, allowed us to finally say The End.

One Response to “Trilogy Anatomy: War for the Planet of the Apes, by Tober Corrigan”

  1. Leonca July 23, 2017 at 2:49 pm #

    I enjoyed this series, though I am growing tired of the “we suck and nature should punish us” trope. Real ape society can be incredibly brutal, so it is a bit odd to see them presented as inherently good since they are “closer to nature.”

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