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War for the Planet of The Apes is in theaters and packs an emotional roller coaster ride into a two-and-half hour battle of men versus monkeys. The film directed by Matt Reeves is a sequel to a prequel; the third and possibly final in a series leading up to the events in the distant future reality of the classic 1968 film.  So, if you need to catch up on how this all plays out in the series, you can read my franchise recap to prep yourself for War, here.

While many of us familiar with the old Planet of the Apes series think of them as a distinct genre of talking monkey movies, I had the uneasy feeling of watching a post-apocalyptic story. It’s the same sense of dread and anticipation I get while watching The Walking Dead. Maybe these stories give me such a sense of foreboding because, as the characters trudge through ruins, I know that even in the best-case scenario the survivors during this time period will barely be able to put together some semblance of a society. Nobody is going to be binge-watching Ape movies on Netflix anytime soon.

However, instead of seeing things from the perspective of the human survivors, this new film puts the viewer in the mind of “the others.” Since the protagonist is the strong-willed Caesar (Andy Serkis), it’s kind of like watching a zombie movie from the point of view of the zombies; why won’t these darn dirty humans stop shooting us in the head! (…hold on I got to write that down.) Even though we know what is inevitable, getting behind the “monsters” is a unique perspective. What is so great about War for the Planet of the Apes is that the powerful, emotional performance of Serkis comes through the CGI ape persona beautifully. Watching his performance, you forget that it is a talking ape and start to connect with the character on all the levels you would a human actor. If humanity ever encounters another intelligence, be it artificial, alien or simian, hopefully we would recognize that it’s not “humanity” that connects us all but intelligence, and lay down our weapons.

The story picks up two years after the events of the last film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which saw a colony of human survivors living in the ruins of San Francisco at odds with Caesar’s enhanced tribe of apes.  Now Caesar is fighting what is left of the US military, (along with some traitor apes that join the humans out of fear) who were called in to help those survivors: a military battalion, the Alpha-Omega led by the ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

Caesar is the most advanced of all the enhanced apes, able to both speak English in a clear voice while understanding the other apes’ sign language. His emotional intelligence has also evolved as he exhibits a wide range human feelings that he takes us along for. Caesar and the Colonel seem to have a history together. After a group of human soldiers attack the apes, Caesar shows them mercy, sending them back to the Colonel with a message of peace if he will just leave the apes along. However, that notion is short-lived as the very next night the ape camp is attacked by a group of soldiers including the Colonel himself who kills Caesar’s wife and older son. Now Caesar wants the seek out the ultimate “human” feeling: revenge. Caesar sends the rest of this tribe to escape into the desert while he tracks down the Colonel.

Why won’t the Colonel accept Caesar’s offer of peace? We learn in a confrontation between the two leaders that the Simian Flu, which wiped out most of humanity while at the same time increasing the intelligence of the apes, has now mutated. Whereas before, it simply killed off humans, now those who come in contact with it lose the ability to speak and begin to devolve. The Colonel has an extermination policy that is not limited to just apes but any humans that show signs of this new disease. The way he sees it, if people start to devolve while the apes rise, then humans will no longer be the dominant specials on the planet! There can be only one!

Before I went, I was half-expecting an ape to put on a brown leather vest toward the end of War, in order to connect the story to the distant future society that we see in the classic Charlton Heston starring film. Luckily filmmakers did not take this monkey movie in that cheesy direction. Rather, War for the Planet of the Apes is a seriously good drama with intense action scenes; there is never a dull moment. Fans of the series will not be disappointed.

Have you seen War for the Planet of the Apes? What did you think?