I saw the 3D version of War for the Planet of the Apes yesterday. It was a good and satisfying ending for the trilogy begun in 2011. As with the first two movies, the special effects were great, blending costuming and CGI to create believable intelligent apes, something that’s been a major concern of all the movies since the 1968 Frank Schaffner version. And there was plenty of homage to that classic movie in this one.
There is a certain darkness to the movies in this trilogy (that started with Rise of the Planet of the Apes). I think that’s inherent in the story since it deals with the demise of humanity. That’s been the case since the Pierre Boulle novel, though the emphasis there was revealing the animal baseness in humans despite our civilization and technology. The 1968 movie took the story more into a “doomsday warning” theme, which was common in SF for the time. In fact, Rod Serling co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Wilson, which probably explains its popularity and endurance.
In Mr. Boulle’s novel, the downfall of humanity simply came through continued evolution-devolution, which switched the places of apes and humans on earth. His depiction of the ape civilization is as an exact duplicate of the human one it replaced with regard to level of technology. Within that premise, he was able to make his points and show “human intelligence” in quotation marks. The Schaffner movie did pick up on that theme as well, but it added a nuclear-war-apocalypse aspect that resonated more with audiences of the time (and probably still would today). It’s not part of this trilogy, however.
All of the movies (and even a 1974 TV series) were spun from Mr. Boulle’s novel because it was a great idea that begged for artistic exploration (The Phantom of the Opera is also such a tale). I see a dichotomy in the story’s telling—one following the novel and one following the 1968 movie. This trilogy follows the movie while the 2001 movie by Tim Burton followed the novel (at least more so than the other movies, and it basically sucked). All-in-all, I would say these last three are the best since the very first one.
So what makes this ape-move franchise so compelling? I think it touches the human nerve that has produced apocalypse literature over the centuries. Perhaps there has been, for 10,000 years, a foreboding that this experiment of human civilization based on “conquering nature” can’t last. 10K years is not long—just a blip between ice ages. In that time, this mode of living has exploded the human population at the expense of all other life, and now threatens to extinguish it all. There is a subliminal sense in the air that only a collapse of humanity can spare life on earth. That view competes with the Star Trek view of hope-through-technology, but it may be winning out now.
War for the Planet of the Apes ends with ray of hope, as is needful for commercial success. It is difficult to end such stories too darkly, anyway. Even the original movies had to give us some hope. But behind the entertainment lies the dark observations of the Boulle novel, and the subtle warning of the Serling-Wilson screenplay. The danger is not that the earth will become a planet of apes, but that it will become a planet of no life at all.