Giving birth to “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Fast and the Furious,” the 2000s signaled the rise of the planet of the big-screen franchises. In the 2010s, the Avengers assembled, Mark Wahlberg picked up Shia LaBeouf’s “Transformers” gear, “Star Wars” returned to the galaxy (again), and the dawn of the planet of the franchises was actualized. As we march toward the 2020s, despite ticket sales threatening record lows and many sequels underperforming, Hollywood’s major studios aren’t surrendering. They’ve staged a war for a planet overflowing with franchises.
This weekend, we bid adieu to a series that quietly became the decade’s finest. (But who are we kidding? If we’ve learned anything from these other tentpoles, it’ll be back.)
The new “Planet of the Apes” trilogy had no right to be this good. The original series from the 1960s and ’70s did not need five installments, especially since Charlton Heston left after the third. Tim Burton’s reboot, in development at Fox for 13 long years, opened to shoddy results in 2001, a mere four years before screenwriting partners Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver began pitching what seemed like another excessive retreading. And then, lo and behold, their work proved worthwhile ― vital, even.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” arrived in 2011 and matured into “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” in 2014. Boasting stunning technical precision and emotional resonance, they make a sterling case for the power of the effects-laden blockbuster, even ones with clunky titles. “War for the Planet of the Apes,” opening July 14, is even better than its predecessors, marking the century’s only franchise that both improved with each entry and avoided backstage drama. (For the latter, try Marvel, Lucasfilm and Warner Bros. on for size.)
The opening scene of “War for the Planet of the Apes” encapsulates the films’ evocative imagery. The Simian Flu, sparked by a virus that scientists created in a laboratory, has knocked out swarms of the population. An army, having decided its best recourse is to infiltrate the apes’ peaceful isolation, trudges through rain wearing helmets with “MONKEY KILLER” and “BEDTIME FOR BONZO” scrawled on the back. The stakes are clear: Humans, forever enveloped in their own greed and dominance, are the villains. They’ve launched a full-scale race war.
Matt Reeves has made the rare blockbuster that feels like a director’s conception instead of a corporate blueprint.
In lesser filmmakers’ hands, such big-budget conflict would inspire a pageant of noise and cartoonish violence. But with Matt Reeves presiding again (he also made “Dawn”), this threequel opts for hushed thrills. “War for the Planet of the Apes” ― like “Logan,” another surprisingly refined 2017 blockbuster ― is, in effect, a Western. Caesar (Andy Serkis, stunning as ever in motion-capture) had always strove to emulate humans’, well, humanistic traits, but when a hit squad kills his wife and son, revenge is the only dish worth cooking anymore. That leads Caesar and a few cronies ― including a delightful chimp (Steve Zahn) who fled from a zoo and refers to himself by humans’ most frequent moniker: “Bad Ape” ― on a horseback journey to an internment camp run by a ruthless warlord simply called the Colonel (Woody Harrelson, recalling Marlon Brando’s dictator in “Apocalypse Now”).
There’s no deafening spectacle to fill the third act. There is simply a mission at hand, staged against the Sierra mountains’ picturesque serenity. The apes conspire to rescue the hundreds of monkeys locked inside cages and forced into manual labor without food or water. “This is a holy war; all of human history has led to this moment,” the Colonel says, but this particular battle does not feel like a Marvel-style rush to save the world. Its heart-pounding action is the result of a rousing score (Michael Giacchino channels Jonny Greenwood’s staccato keening from “There Will Be Blood”), a sweepingly old-fashioned narrative and camerawork that prioritizes characters’ subtle motivations. These apes are more human ― more three-dimensional, that is ― than most of the actual people who populate summer blockbusters in the 21st century.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” is billed as the culmination of a trilogy, but we all know better: Reeves has tossed around ideas for its future, and surely Fox will milk its critical and commercial success. (When asked about the franchise’s prospects on Tuesday, a Fox publicist said, “No comment.”) If only this story could end now, before reaching its sell-by date, with Caesar and company’s staggering finale sending us off on a weepy high.
Inevitable protraction or not, the “Apes” series has secured its worth, balancing dark visual and narrative sophistication with approachable sensibilities. Like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” maestro Rupert Wyatt before him, Reeves has made the rare blockbuster that feels like a director’s conception instead of a corporate blueprint. This particular epic was told with grace, skill and existential complexity. As the 2010s draw to a close and Hollywood moves ahead with more of the same, we’ll always have the apes, who proved they were indeed stronger together.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” is in theaters Friday.