Fifteen years ago, a manmade virus escaped from the laboratory in California where it was created and had utterly unforeseen effects, wiping out most of humanity yet making the apes more intelligent, even being able to speak in many cases. A colony of these zoo apes set up home in the forests there, hoping to live in peace, or at least coexistence, with what surviving humanity there was, yet their leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) was challenged, not only by the remaining soldiers clinging on to the old order, but by trouble in his own ranks when Koba (Toby Kebbell) staged a violent coup. Caesar won the day, but the battle has attracted unwanted attention: determined to extinguish the virus for good, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is on the attack.
There was no other major science fiction franchise of the twenty-tens that took itself as seriously as the revived Planet of the Apes series, wrestling with weighty issues ranging from vivisection in Rise to the Vietnam War in Dawn, though considering the bombastic, overreaching title of this third instalment, you might have thought, wait, didn't we already do war in the previous entry? There may have been a marketing misjudgement in the title, which sounds trivial but when legions of complainers went online to whinge that there wasn't much actual war in War of the Planet of the Apes, surprisingly audiences decided not to trust the formerly reliable moviemakers and as a result this raked in a lower profit than what had gone before.
One supposes "First Half Anthony Mann Western Followed by Second Half Prison Break Movie of the Planet of the Apes" was not only not snappy enough, but wouldn't have comfortably fit on the poster, yet that was essentially what was on offer, a highly cineliterate science fiction adventure ruminating on revenge and the substance of acting on long-held grudges and whether any of it was worth the anguish in the long run. The actual battle did not begin until the last act, well into it in fact, as the grand finale, though arguably up to that point director Matt Reeves had been doing a very passable impersonation of a prisoner of war flick of yore, think along the lines of The Great Escape, for instance, and we were regularly told war was on its way.
That was not to say the concerns were exclusively of humankind's experiences, for another major theme was conservation, be that a way of life or an entire species, us included. The apes are on a journey to survive after their camp is infiltrated and Caesar's wife and son are slaughtered, personally, by The Colonel (just to make it clear: this was personal), so their leader sends them across the desert to the Promised Land in a Moses in The Ten Commandments sort of way, while he sets out on his own to make sure what happened to him doesn't happen to any other ape. Okay, and let's be honest, to punish the man who has ruined his life in the most punishing manner possible, very much as James Stewart would do at the beginning of those Mann Westerns, an inspiration that was unexpectedly potent (with all the snow, Jeremiah Johnson appeared to be an influence too).
Caesar isn't going it alone, however, as he has three friends who have stuck with him through thick and thin and are not about to abandon him now he is suffering a world-shaking crisis, and their camaraderie, though stoic and tersely communicated, was one of the most affecting elements of the film. Once again, as Serkis proved the spirit of the piece with his superb motion capture performance, it was the orang-utan Maurice (Karin Konoval) who was the heart, the actress's compassion showing through some remarkably expressive animation, notably in the scene where Maurice decides to take along a little girl (Amiah Miller) whose father Caesar has gunned down (he drew first). It is here we realise losing communication can be a curse, especially on a huge scale, for the humans are losing the power of speech after living through the virus, and the need to talk, to make your stance as plain as can be in that manner, is paramount in preventing conflicts getting so out of hand that violence is the consequence. With callbacks to the whole series (Caesar's disbelief that things are getting this bad is one example that mirrors Taylor's horror in the original), if this was indeed the final entry for a while, they were going out strong. Music by Michael Giacchino.