If, just five or so years ago, you said a rebooted trilogy based off the long dead and buried Planet of the Apes franchise would go on to be the most lauded blockbuster trilogy this side of The Lord of the Rings and Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy...I would have gave you a very funny look indeed. But not only is this trilogy the best example of mainstream blockbuster filmmaking of the past 15 years, it deserves to sit alongside the best trilogies of all time. It's also an example of the very, very rare occasion where each sequel gets better than the previous one.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt surprised just about everyone. Nobody saw that film coming. I distinctly remember thinking it looked stupid as hell. Then word got out it was actually good. Really good. And much to my surprise, it ended up being one of my favorite films of that year.
It was a perfect reboot. It did it's own thing while respecting the past. Rise is an effortlessly paced affair. It never stops moving, yet still manages to build likable characters, deliver rock solid action and tell a damned moving story to boot. The only real faults I can levy at the film are some cringey references to the original film, a bad performance by Tom Felton and a couple of irksome plot inconsistencies that the film was too smart to overlook, but overlooked them anyway.
Then Dawn of the Planet of the Apes came out three years later to even more acclaim. With Matt Reeves at the helm, Dawn was darker, moodier, and more introspective than it's predecessor. It also beefed up the spectacle to wonderful heights. Everything about this film did what great sequels are meant to do. While Rise shared protagonists between James Franco's Will and Andy Serkis's Caesar, Dawn puts more focus on the Apes, which was a bold move. Dawn plays with some obvious tropes and cliches a little too much for it's own good...but the beyond stellar production value and rock solid sense of storytelling easily help it overcome familiar beats.
And now we have War for the Planet of the Apes, which is the most purely cinematic film of the trilogy. Caesar is the sole lead this time around, and the apes take center stage like never before. The scope of War is simultaneously the largest of the series and the most intimate. I don't know about you, but it's ballsy as hell for a multi-million dollar studio film to greenlight a film that follows ape characters who mostly communication with sign language. There was a lot of faith put into the creative vision of this film, and I applaud Fox for letting Reeves and his crew do what they wanted to do. I mean, I can't say there wasn't creative interference here, but there sure doesn't feel like there was.
What has astonished me about this series is how well defined Caesar as a character really is. It's truly an epic arc. He's grown, loved, lost, made mistakes and had to face his demons. Caesar isn't a great character for an animal, he's a great character period. His journey in War is raw, emotional and devastating...yet retains the air of hope that defined him in the previous two installments. Every decision and event of his life seems to be etched in his face, and Andy Serkis truly does deserve some kind of recognition for his work beyond fanboy accolades. Yes, there is a team of supremely talented animators that worked tirelessly to bring Caesar and all the other apes to life, but if not for Andy Serkis's raw talent, the character simply would not work as well as he does.
I also applaud these films for not being as cut and dry as they easily could have been. While there is no doubt the audience is meant to side and root for the apes, the scripts for Dawn and War make it a point to highlight the human side of this conflict. The moment I knew Dawn was firing on all cylinders was when it made the decision to make an ape, not a human, the instigator of the war. These films do far more than say "humanity bad, ape good." like I've heard some people say. As villainous as Woody Harrelson's character is in the film, I couldn't bring myself to hate him...or even entirely dismiss his point of view. Hell, Caesar's entire arc in War is predicated on his selfish desires for personal revenge, not altruism.
War takes what made the first two films great and streamlined it to near perfection. The vistas are wondrous, the set pieces intense, and the character work excellent. The film is at it's best when the apes are just talking to each other, allowing them to be characters. And that leads into what I think makes these film unique among their blockbuster peers: they have a clarity is storytelling that is refreshing. They have an almost old school vibe to them that harkens back to the spectacles of yesteryear. This isn't because the series is meta or referential in any way. No, it's because the series uses every tool at its disposal to just tell a story. As remarkable as the effects are in these films (and War has, without question, the best CGI ever put on film) the films never feel like they are leaning on the CGI as a crutch to distract from the fact the story and characters aren't up to par. I forget very quickly I'm watching CGI characters.
This new Planet of the Apes series has succeeded against all expectations. They are a testament to that with a little more care and effort, great stories can transcend the reboot and remake labels and become their own beast-no pun intended.