Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
“The only good KING is a dead KONG”.
Before the human colony was destroyed in Dawn they managed to make radio contact with the remains of the United States military stationed further north. They agreed to send help in the form of a battalion led by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson). Caesar’s army has been on the run for two years evading the combined forces of the Colonel’s soldiers and the remains of Koba’s followers led by the gorilla Red (Ty Olsson). These soldiers stealthily approach an ape camp, a trench in a ditch protected by a timber wall, where they hope to finally capture or kill the ape leader. The ape losses are heavy but Caesar’s army is summoned by a lookout and the hail of smoke and arrows the cavalry brings manages to sweep the men out of the ditch. A few of the soldiers, including Red and a human sniper named Preacher (Gabriel Chavarria) who wields a crossbow, are taken captive by Caesar’s forces.
The soldiers’ uniforms are hand-decorated with slogans like “Monkey Killer” and “Bedtime for Bonzo” as well as the Greek letters Alpha and Omega with which the rebel apes are also branded and many of the Colonel’s men tattooed. It’s an obvious allusion to the AΩ bomb from Beneath (1970) and Battle (1973) but it speaks more to the Colonel’s heretical religious stylings. The Colonel is a man baked in the mold of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979). He suffers from pretensions toward godhood and believes his purpose in life is a holy war to exterminate the apes and all those who oppose him. The men and apes who follow him do so religiously in the belief that he will protect and absolve them.
Caesar speaks to the captives while flanked by Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and an albino gorilla named Winter (Aleks Paunovic). The ape leader informs them that this conflict was started by Koba, an ape dead by his hands, and that his only desire is to protect the apes. Caesar believes that the dozen or so traitor apes working for the Colonel do so out of fear of the retribution they will face for having allied themselves with Koba, but Red counters that the Colonel is all-powerful and his followers believe he is more than a man. Caesar surprises the soldiers by letting them go, with the exception of Red, with a message of truce for the Colonel: “Leave us the woods and the killing can stop”. However as the horses to which the men are tied vanish into the woods, Winter appears, wounded and bloodied, to inform the apes that Red overpowered him and escaped.
These humans have been working with enhanced apes for years now but they still disbelieve their humanity. One of the soldiers accuses Caesar and his apes of being animals in the belief that he and the other captives will be slaughtered. Preacher, a soldier who was scared to the point of disorientation and panic when the tides turned against his squad in the ditch is very surprised to be leaving the woods alive. Caesar believes that doing so will prove to the Colonel that the apes are not savages. Unfortunately, as it is later shown, the Colonel is insane.
The ape army retreats to their home base, a cave behind a waterfall where the women and children are kept. The dead bodies of the apes killed at the trench are wrapped and floated downriver. The film glosses over this moment but funeral rites are a pretty significant leap forward for this culture. Burying of the dead, really treating the dead in any way other than leaving them to rot or cannibalism, is uniquely human. While it’s been argued such practices began for practical reasons such as avoiding attracting predators, it’s become interwoven with all religious beliefs. Taylor interrupts a genuine funeral in the ‘68 film but having the rebooted apes perform ritual disposal of corpses is once again an incredible marker of their intelligence and cultural evolution.
Blue Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones) and Rocket return from a long and tiresome journey beyond the woods and mountains and they bring back news of an oasis in a desert where they believe the apes can make a new home hidden and safe from the humans. Winter thinks the apes should leave immediately but the others believe they need to secure a path out of the woods first. Caesar’s youngest son has been named Cornelius (Devyn Dalton) and Blue Eyes has begun some sort of romance with a female chimp named Lake (Sara Canning).
That evening, Caesar’s rest is interrupted when he spots laser sights filtering through the waterfall. He reaches out and grabs one of the rappelling ropes before quietly going to inform his guards that there are intruders. They manage to surprise and eliminate two of Colonel McCullough’s soldiers but fail to stop the man himself from penetrating into Caesar’s room. Through the radio of one of the downed soldiers Caesar overhears the Colonel call for an extraction stating that the target has been acquired and “King Kong is dead!” Caesar rushes back to his quarters where he comes face to face with the Colonel. Following the man’s confused gaze, Caesar sees Cornelia and Blue Eyes have been shot dead and he fails to stop the Colonel from retreating.
In the aftermath, it is determined that Winter is missing. Luca surmises that he betrayed them out of fear and this later proves to be true. Caesar is left alone in his room to grieve by Maurice on the pretext that the other apes should continue to search for the missing Cornelius. Caesar hears rustling behind him and whips around, weapon in hand, enraged and prepared to fight to the death only to see little Cornelius emerging from hiding. Although Caesar is relieved to find his son, perhaps even afraid at the thought of having frightened the child, it’s clear that the ape leader has begun sublimating his grief into anger and vengeance.
The apes, their home base location now compromised, decide to abandon the woods. Caesar, however, has different plans. His sights are set on avenging his wife and son. The other apes balk at the thought of going without Caesar but he is adamant and justifies his decision by suggesting that by assassinating the Colonel he will be able to draw the attention of the soldiers away from the rest of the apes ensuring they can travel unmolested to their new home. Leaving Cornelius in Lake’s care, Caesar departs on horseback with a rifle. As he is leaving the woods, however, Caesar is met by his lieutenants Rocket, Maurice, and Luca.
The three offer varying flimsy excuses for following Caesar on his mission. Luca believes his gorilla guards have located the ever-shifting location of the Colonel’s camp and plans to lead Caesar there. Rocket claims Caesar will need him as back-up. When Caesar refuses Rocket reveals a deeper reason. He tells Caesar that he understands what it is like to lose a child. Caesar’s lieutenants are also his closest friends. Although they respect, even revere their leader, they are also very much worried about him. Caesar explains the possibility that he might die on this mission, clearly descending into darkness and perhaps even a death wish but apparently relents after hearing Maurice explain that he is there to ensure that Caesar makes it back.
The four horse-apes approach a seemingly abandoned village betrayed only by the continuous plume of smoke indicating the presence of a controlled fire for heating or cooking. According to Luca this is where his guards believe the camp is located. As they enter the village a man carrying firewood emerges from a cabin. It mirrors the moment in Dawn when Ash and Blue Eyes suddenly came upon Carver. The man nervously explains he is just going to put his bundle of wood on the ground before suddenly brandishing his gun. He is immediately gunned down by Caesar who flanked him by entering the cabin from behind. Although Caesar may have saved Maurice’s life the other apes wince when the man is killed. They outnumbered him four to one, he could have been taken hostage and questioned. More’s the pity when they find the AΩ symbol tattooed on his neck. Although Rocket (correctly) hypothesizes the man might be a deserter, the apes are soon distracted by a crashing sound from one of the other cabins.
They find a young human girl, dried blood under her nose, cowering in her bunk. Caesar orders the men to search and loot the rest of the camp but Maurice stays behind and picks up and hands the girl her rag-doll. The girl (Amiah Miller) struggles to speak but only succeeds in creating a guttural stuttering sound. Recognizing that something is wrong with her, and that she will die on her own, Maurice refuses to leave her behind. Once again, despite protesting initially, Caesar relents. The girl and Caesar have a lot in common and her function in the film is essentially to rescue Caesar from himself.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll start calling the girl Nova, a name she does not gain until much later. Nova is an innocent; there’s no deviousness, malice, or sin to her. She spends much of her time staring blankly at Caesar which turns her into a mirror, the reflection of which clearly makes Caesar uncomfortable. As a result, Nova also externalizes a lot of Caesar’s emotions and the apes protect and care for her much as they would their leader. For example, Maurice refuses to leave either of them behind against Caesar’s will.
The group continues along the coast and finally come to the real camp where Caesar spots Winter through his binoculars. Winter is a revenge stepping-stone for Caesar. He sneaks into the tent where Winter is washing dishes and interrogates him. Winter has no loyalty to the Colonel having only betrayed Caesar because the captured Red promised Winter the Colonel would spare his life in exchange for Caesar’s location. Winter, terrified and prevented from escaping by Caesar’s lieutenants, tells Caesar everything he knows about the Colonel’s whereabouts and plans. The Colonel departed in the morning for a location known only as The Border where the other traitor apes believe he is going to rendezvous with the rest of the military so that they may make a final push to annihilate the remaining apes. Winter asks Caesar’s forgiveness but knowingly panics when he learns whose deaths his betrayal caused. The albino tries to call out for help to some silhouetted guards outside but is smothered and strangled by Caesar, ultimately killing him by the time the guards move on.
The apes camp out, waiting for the Alpha Omega camp to move on the following morning, and Caesar suffers from nightmares. Koba, his face bleeding, approaches Caesar through the campfire and he simply says “Ape Not Kill Ape”. This vision awakens Caesar and clearly disturbs him. The hallucination is probably a manifestation of Caesar’s guilt for murdering Winter, possibly only the second ape to die by his hands, as well as an acknowledgment of the darkness gnawing at his heart which is threatening to turn him into the selfish and vengeful Koba. The nightmare is not enough to turn him away from his path.
While following the Alpha Omega convoy into the snowy mountains the apes are stopped in their tracks by the sounds of gunfire. They approach the camp after the men have moved on only to discover three executed soldiers. The bodies are all hooded and feature a single gunshot to the chest. Caesar and Rocket remove these hoods and find that all three men suffered from severe nosebleeds, one of whom wakes up. The man is scared of the apes but incapacitated by his wound. The apes ask him why he was shot but, clearly suffering from the same condition as Nova, he is unable to respond and simply gasps repeatedly. The apes decide to put him out of his misery and the man closes his eyes and nods while Caesar prepares to shoot him.
Having lost track of the convoy by this point, the apes climb a radio tower to find any trace of the Colonel’s soldiers or his base. While they are scanning the horizon a mysterious figure in a parka robs them of a shotgun, binoculars, and Luca’s white horse. There’s a brief chase scene as the thief leads the pursuers up the mountain into an abandoned ski lodge. Backed into a corner the thief surrenders and reveals he is a chimpanzee escaped from the Sierra Safari Zoo who has been living in isolation all this time. His name is Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and the first thing he does is give Nova his parka after noticing she was shivering from the cold.
Bad Ape reveals that the Simian Flu which spread from person to person also infected other apes. This gave them green flecks in their eyes and made them just as smart as Caesar’s apes. Most of them were killed by humans but Bad Ape managed to escape. Bad Ape is a bit of a tragic figure but the film treats him like comic relief. Bad Ape cannot sign, he taught himself to speak English by listening to humans. His facial expressions are big and broad and his voice is higher-pitched than any of the other apes. Bad Ape excites easily and has a nervous personality that contrasts with the stoicism of Caesar and his lieutenants. Excited to have new friends, Bad Ape attempts to feed his guests rations he stole from the Tower Rock California Border Quarantine Facility.
Bad Ape calls this place the human zoo because of the large holding cells built to contain and isolate those infected with Simian Flu. The survivors of the San Francisco colony were briefly locked up in similar facilities during Koba’s brutal regime in Dawn. Bad Ape is reluctant to return to such a place, he’d previously seen men executed by soldiers for trying to climb the walls, and he tries to defuse the tension his refusal causes by pointing out that the ongoing snow storm will force them to stay in the lodge regardless and by gifting Nova the shiny object she has been trying to play with during this whole conversation: the emblem from the back of a Chevy Nova.
That night Bad Ape catches Caesar looking dolefully at Nova and inquires about her. Caesar explains that Nova is a stranger they took in because she had no one else. Bad Ape asks if Caesar has kids of his own and reveals that he too lost a child. Their commiseration is brief but Bad Ape empathizes with Caesar’s desire for revenge and puts two and two together regarding the soldier who murdered Caesar’s family and the soldiers at Tower Rock. He agrees to lead Caesar there.
Where Nova represents a human who is not an enemy of Caesar, Bad Ape is a monkey who did not follow Caesar. Both force him to expand his understanding of the world and, through his grief, sympathize with the very similar pain of others. Caesar wants to carry his burden alone and tried to accomplish his revenge solo but has been forced to take on others and accept help at every turn. The torture of Bad Ape’s hermit-like lifestyle and his joy at meeting Caesar and his lieutenants are a dark reflection of Caesar’s choices that contradict his attempts to isolate himself and refuse help.
In the morning, Luca and Nova share a private moment when Luca, after observing Nova enjoying herself beneath a pink blossoming tree, plucks a sprig and places it behind her ear. Luca seems a bit embarrassed by this when the other apes arrive but it’s a necessary bit of character work between the two for what comes later. The scene of the group preparing to leave ends with Bad Ape giving a thumbs up while wearing a blue toque and vest. It’s this sense that the film is making fun of him which makes me uncomfortable about his role as comic relief.
As the group approaches the facility Nova reveals that she is learning sign language from Maurice by signing “thirsty” while watching Caesar drink from his gourd. Luca and Caesar go on ahead to get a closer look at the base but are attacked by a patrol. Luca tackles one of the soldiers and Caesar’s life is saved by Rocket who witnessed the approaching men from afar. While Luca did manage to kill the soldier, he suffered a mortal wound from the bayonet of a rifle. The two working together manage to help bring Luca back to Maurice and the others for his death scene.
Luca is in a great deal of pain but takes satisfaction in the fact that he was able to protect Caesar. As Luca passes away, Nova places the sprig behind his ear and begins to cry inconsolably. This is a fierce display of emotion and intelligence. Nova previously walked by the corpse of the man who was presumably her father without a second glance or shedding a single tear. It could be an indication of her growth as a person or her role as an externalizing mirror for Caesar.
Maurice believes they should prevent further losses and catch up with the rest of the apes but Rocket believes they need to honor Luca’s sacrifice by completing their mission. Caesar states that the soldiers must pay for Luca’s death, a sentiment which Maurice criticizes by comparing Caesar’s statement to something Koba would say. This upsets Caesar and he pushes the others away, claiming it was a mistake to bring them, and says that he will finish his task alone. It’s possible that Caesar’s refusal to involve his lieutenants further is his attempt to differentiate himself from Koba by not needlessly risking the lives of others for his own selfish ends, but Maurice is correct in pointing out that Caesar has become blinded by his hatred for humans.
Caesar makes his way down the mountain, the fresh snow slipping around him, to the worksite he and Luca scouted earlier. There he finds, to his horror, that the X-shapes he previously saw being erected and hammered by the soldiers were crucified apes. This is in reference to the similar markers, albeit in effigy, that delineated the Forbidden Zone and the green belts in the first two Planet of the Apes films. Caesar realizes that his entire troop of apes has been captured and placed in the quarantine cages. He cuts down one of the crucified ape soldiers to question him. Caesar learns that the Colonel’s men came out of nowhere and attacked the ape caravan but were prevented from massacring them by the Colonel’s orders. Instead the Colonel has been forcing the apes to work to death within the Tower Rock camp. As the bloodied freezing ape passes away Caesar is ambushed and knocked out by Red who drags him into the camp.
“Grant and Lee, Wellington and Napoleon, Custer and Sitting Bull… You’re probably not much of a reader but this is a big moment.” These are Colonel McCullough’s first words to Caesar. This man suffers from severe delusions of grandeur which are apparently fully supported by the soldiers under his command. The rest of the film takes place inside the Colonel’s makeshift prison camp where the apes have been hard at work building and fortifying the facility’s exterior wall. The apes have been denied food and water since their arrival and are literally whipped into submission. At first Caesar is placed with the rest of the ape population, although the children have been specifically isolated, but after causing a disturbance on his first day of work Caesar is placed into a separate cage. It is difficult to watch a work camp led by a madman without thinking of the Second World War, where prisoners of war and “undesirable” minorities were infamously forced to live and work under inhumane conditions.The filmmakers themselves listed The Great Escape (1963) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) as inspirations. As the prisoners in this story, it continues the legacy of metaphorically associating the enhanced apes with all disenfranchised people.
There are a couple of mysteries that Caesar unravels during the course of his stay here. The first is that the army due to arrive from the North is not there to join and support the Colonel but to destroy him. It appears that the Colonel and his Alpha Omega unit have gone rogue. His men worship him and hanging below his quarters is an American Flag with the superimposed Greek letters hand painted on top of the stripes. Various Biblical verses decorate the walls and structures of the facility. When Caesar reveals to the Colonel that he understands Winter’s information was wrong, the man fills in the gaps for Caesar. The viral plague which caused the human apocalypse has mutated and the Colonel has been unilaterally executing the infected.
The Colonel’s own son was once one of the soldiers under his command sent out after Caesar’s apes but he and others began to get sick after several trips into the woods. There’s a bit of wonky movie science here, perhaps attributable to the lack of any qualified survivors on hand, but it’s unclear precisely where the Colonel’s beliefs differ from the in-universe reality. What the Colonel proposes is that all the surviving humans were nevertheless infected with the Simian Flu virus and are merely immune to it. He believes that same virus has remained inside them all these years and has now mutated into an altogether different disease. Instead of making humans smarter, as it was intended, or killing them, as ALZ-113 did, it now gives them nosebleeds and renders them mute. Retroviruses can permanently integrate their DNA into the host genetic code and brain damage to select regions can cause rare deficiencies in the ability to process and produce language known as aphasia. Based on Nova and the executed man’s symptoms, this expressive aphasia seems more complete than any stroke or lesion. The Colonel believes that the new infection is causing humans to regress to a more primitive state. He personally executed his own son to stop the spread of this disease and while he believes this act purified him and gave him purpose it’s clear that it also drove him over the edge.
Caesar is put to work, but when an exhausted orangutan accidentally makes some scaffolding collapse Caesar interrupts the orangutan’s punishment which causes the rest of the apes to revolt and stop working. The Colonel shoots the orang and threatens to do the same to Caesar unless he orders the apes to get back to work. In return, Caesar demands that the apes be given food and water. As the Colonel begins to count down, Lake lifts a piece of concrete rubble over her head and begins to get back to work. The apes, unwilling to lose their leader, resume construction of the wall without Caesar’s order. Caesar is then strung up, crucified, in the center of the camp where he is approached by Red. Caesar excoriates Red for being foolish enough to believe the Colonel will let him and the other traitors live as well as for allowing the human soldiers to call him “Donkey” which is painted on his back. Red takes Caesar to the Colonel’s quarters where he is leaning over a map and listening to “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix. This is when the Colonel marvels at Caesar’s intelligence and reveals his secrets.
The Colonel’s mood darkens when Caesar accuses him of being without mercy which is an accusation the Colonel renders unto Caesar, fully aware of his desire for revenge. Caesar counters that he offered the Colonel peace which was then refused. The Colonel then goes into a monologue about his belief that natural selection dictates the stronger and more intelligent apes would eventually replace humankind. He certainly isn’t the first villain to justify his actions with misunderstood evolutionary science. The Colonel also accuses Caesar several times of being too emotional which could be seen as a form of tone-policing all too familiar to modern activists or it could simply be a sign of the Colonel’s emotionless psychopathy.
After killing his son, the Colonel ordered the rest of his men to kill the infected and executed those who refused. Many others, such as Nova’s father, deserted. One of these deserters reported back to the Colonel’s superiors who sent messengers ordering him to stop. The Colonel beheaded all but one of these messengers so he could bait the army into attacking the Tower Rock facility which, according to McCullough, is a fully stocked weapons depot that was turned into a relocation camp. The Colonel seems to care a great deal about what Caesar thinks of him and tries to defend himself and justify his actions. He believes Caesar should be more dispassionate about the death of his family because it was an act of war and points out that assassinating the Colonel would have all but ensured his men annihilate the apes in reprisal.
While the rest of the army believes they can find a cure for the mutated plague, the Colonel is of the opinion that it will wipe out what makes humans human, turning them into the apes’ cattle and handing the planet to them. In other words: creating the conditions of the first Planet of the Apes film. His delusions of grandeur kick in when he believes that all of human history has led to this moment, that he is the only thing standing between humanity’s survival and defeat, and that what he is fighting is a holy war for the future of the planet. When he first met Caesar he apologized for killing his wife and son but here the Colonel ends the conversation by saying that although he did not mean to do it he is glad he prevented Blue Eyes from inheriting his father’s “unholy kingdom”.
There are clearly some religious themes to this since the Alpha and Omega iconography is taken from Revelations where God describes himself as being the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet i.e. The Beginning and The End. The base is also decorated with verses from the Bible here and there. The Colonel’s right-hand man for all his dealings with Caesar is even named Preacher. However, the Colonel also states his belief that the viral apocalypse was a punishment from Nature for mankind trying to bend it to their will. Armando believed that the Planet of the Apes was God’s will and that it was good. Hasslein believed that it was God’s will and that it was bad which is why he tried to fight it. McCullough apparently believes it is nature’s will which could be taken to mean God’s but his delusions seem to have caused him to conflate his own will with divine right.
Maurice, Bad Ape, and Rocket uncover tunnels which lead into sewers under the camp originally discovered by quarantined humans who used them to escape. Signs like one saying “This way out of hell” point the way out. Unfortunately, the only existing hole leads to somewhere in the middle of the camp. In order to dig into the cages and free the captive apes they will need to accurately measure the distance. Meanwhile, Caesar is being denied food and water while the other apes are finally provided sustenance. The Colonel decides to leave Caesar for dead, promising to put him to work if he survives the night. In his delirium Caesar imagines Red, come to cut him down and lock him up, is Koba who taunts him by stating he will be unable to save the apes and that they will all die in the camp. Koba invites Caesar to join him. It’s possible that Red was actually pleading with Caesar to stop resisting and save himself but only Caesar’s hallucination is shown. As Caesar shivers and starves in his cage Nova brazenly enters the camp undetected. She offers Caesar her doll and brings him water. The other apes, having secretly hoarded some food, offer it up to Caesar and Nova shuffles between the two cages bringing Caesar a handful of the grain. The other apes profess solidarity with Caesar by performing the sign “Apes Together Strong” which is done by miming being unable to break a bundle of branches as Caesar demonstrated for Maurice in Rise.
Although Nova has thus far moved freely completely undetected within the camp the situation becomes tense when a patrol approaches. Caesar urges her to hide and Rocket, who had hitherto been underground with Maurice, decides to mount a distraction by raising a ruckus, surrendering and then attacking Red to allow Nova to retreat while the attention is on the fight. Since the apes on the outside have binoculars this situation actually allows them to relay vital information to Maurice through sign language. In this way, Rocket is able to inform the others of their escape plan and the apes are able to pace the distance between the hole and the proposed locations for new holes within the adult and child enclosures. Unfortunately, the tunnel leading underneath the children’s enclosure begins to flood and they are forced to change their escape plan.
Before the flood, however, Nova and Maurice have a heart to heart inside the tunnels while he and Bad Ape are busy digging upwards into the enclosures. Nova, who Maurice had assigned as look-out, descends into the tunnels to inform him that the apes have been returned to their enclosures for the night. Maurice teaches her the sign “brave” as in “you are very brave” and Nova does something pretty astonishing. She asks Maurice “Ape? Me? Me…? Ape?” which Maurice answers by removing the emblem from her pocket, reading it aloud to her, and thus naming her Nova. This delights her well enough as she smiles in response, even showing her teeth for once, but it’s a pretty remarkable scene. She’s asking existential questions about self-identity, the kinds of questions Caesar asked Will in Rise. This coupled with her ability to read and use sign language, her copious displays of emotion and her repeated ability to recognize the emotions and needs of others either proves the Colonel’s notions of the mutated illness to be completely ill-founded or implies that Nova is somehow special. Either way, Maurice pointedly did not respond to her query with the sign for “human”. It’s not clear what is meant by this. Perhaps there has been lots of foul talk about humans being evil around her and Maurice wants to spare her feelings by not associating her self-identity with something many of the apes largely consider to be evil. Perhaps Maurice is even correct in distinguishing her from other humans since she represents a novel breed of mankind that is mute making her name, Latin for “new”, very appropriate.
When Caesar is let out of his cage in the morning the Colonel notices and confiscates the rag-doll wondering aloud how it got there. When Caesar is locked back up for the night he and Red finally speak. Red, apparently taunting Caesar, explains that the Colonel will shoot the apes when the wall is finished. Caesar points out that the wall itself is madness and won’t save anybody to which Red responds that he will save himself. The conversation ends when Caesar asks Red if there is anything left of him worth saving. That same night Bad Ape finishes digging into the adult cage and direct communication between the two groups is finally established.
The film score, which owes a ton to the bizarre and beautiful music of the ‘68 original, is noticeably lighter for this escape heist sequence. The scenes are visually funny and there is less tension than one would expect from the stakes of the situation. In order to get the children out of their cage the apes attract the attention of a guard patrolling the parapet by beaning him from afar with feces. It’s possible it’s just warm mud but the soldier’s reaction suggests it’s something a bit more foul. He makes the strange mistake of entering the enclosure to find, and presumably punish, the ape culprit but he is seized upon and dragged into the escape tunnel so his keys and gun can be retrieved. Afterwards, Rocket frees Caesar who enters the children’s enclosure, reunites with his son, and leads the kids to safety by having them climb into the adult enclosure and down into the tunnels. The adults, eager to leave before the arrival of the enemy army, quickly follow. Caesar, stating that like Koba he is unable to escape his hate, remains behind to to get his revenge.
Suddenly, having detected incoming attack helicopters, the base’s wall-mounted surface-to-air-missiles begin firing. Caesar’s apes, still emerging from the escape tunnel, become pinned down between the base and the large army advancing up the valley to attack the Colonel’s wall. As soldiers rush to man the wall and defend the base from missiles, machine gun fire as well as mortar launches respond in kind and two things happen: first, the Colonel is unresponsive and his men pounding on the doors to his quarters get no answer, and secondly, Preacher notices that the apes have vanished overnight which causes him to investigate. Inside the Colonel’s room Caesar finds a picture of the man’s son, removed from its previous position above the counter, sitting in a pool of liquid. Caesar finds the Colonel draped over his bed, half naked, reaching fruitlessly for a knocked over bottle of booze rolling on the floor apparently stinking drunk. Caesar removes the pistol from the Colonel’s bedside table and draws it on him only to discover that the Colonel has contracted Nova’s illness, possibly from contact with her rag-doll.
The Colonel recognizes Caesar and essentially begs Caesar to kill him. The Colonel presses the gun to his own forehead and looks Caesar directly in the eyes awaiting the pull of the trigger. Caesar has an internal struggle that reads entirely on his face. His righteous fury was quickly defused by his understanding of the Colonel’s situation and he struggles to bring that rage to bear again. Caesar is unable to carry out his assassination attempt and leaves the gun with the Colonel who takes his own life. In the end, Caesar did choose mercy proving himself to be a better man than the Colonel. The film suggests the man was, despite his monologues, suffering from guilt and regret over killing his son. Even if he really did believe his son’s death was necessary to prevent the spread of his disease, and his entreaty to Caesar merely a continuation of that belief, by showing the Colonel mercy, Caesar probably shows the Colonel the error of his ways. As a result, his actual suicide likely becomes motivated more by pain and regret than the iron will to follow his righteous path or the desire to not live his life as a degenerate animal. It parallels the journey Caesar went through to reach his change of heart.
Red has been acting as support for a small group of soldiers operating a mounted machine gun and bringing them supplies from their packs. While Red has not had much of a contentious relationship with the humans he serves the movie has spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on his reactions to violence towards the apes. There were close-ups devoted to him peering over the shoulders of the soldiers attacking the ditch as they slaughtered the apes and here he seems to flinch as the men turn their aim away from the helicopters and towards the apes attempting to make their way out from behind the cover of the rocks protecting the escape tunnel and up the forested slopes into the mountains.
Caesar sees that this machine gun nest is located above a leaking fuel tank and grabs a bandolier of grenades before being chased out of the Colonel’s room by three soldiers who broke down the door. Caesar uses the burning and disfigured American flag hanging from the Colonel’s balcony to make his way to the ground. Red, distracted in slow motion by watching the soldiers kill the apes, is tasked with retrieving a rocket launcher from the bags. While doing so he spots Caesar running around the corner from gunfire and time starts to slow down again. Caesar emerges from a cloud of dust kicked up by an explosion and prepares to toss a grenade at the fuel tank. Before that can happen, he is shot in the ribs by one of Preacher’s crossbow bolts. Red, once again ordered to get the launcher, instead uses it to take out Preacher. Red is immediately executed for his betrayal but although the soldiers then open fire on Caesar he is able to detonate the fuel tank, destroying the machine gun nest and setting the wall ablaze.
Red was one of a dozen Donkeys but he’s the only one, other than Winter, named in the film and given dialogue. Of the gorillas in this film Luca died for Caesar, Winter betrayed Caesar, and Red betrayed and died for Caesar. In the original series of films, gorillas were the dumb thugs of ape society, at least from the chimp perspective, so it’s good to see these films expand a little on the gorillas. It may be my personal bias toward Maurice for his calm wisdom and my affection for orangs, but the role of gorillas in the series ought to be more than just cannon fodder. While Red’s sacrifice is noble, it has more than a passing resemblance to Buck’s death in Rise. While I don’t exactly look forward to another Aldo or General Ursus, half of the named apes who have died in the reboot series have been gorillas. There is an effort in War to develop those characters further, but it can’t really amount to much if they all die by the end.. I’m a fan of King Kong but this is a bit much. I’d like to see a gorilla use their enhanced brain too.
The explosion sets off a chain reaction by igniting a second fuel tank and Caesar barely makes it into the escape tunnel before the whole base goes up in flames. One wonders how such an obvious weakness wasn’t exploited by the helicopters’ missiles and the hail of mortar fire. Regardless, Caesar emerges from the exit hole just as the enemy troops, clad in white and wearing full masks, march up the valley with their tanks and jeeps. Heeding the Colonel’s words that the only thing these soldiers fear more than him is the apes, Caesar lays low while the soldiers drive a tank into the base and cheer, having successfully taken it. As a parallel to the film’s opening action, the attacking force is swept away by the arrival of a greater force from behind the wall.
The explosion triggered an avalanche that buries the enemy army in the valley. Caesar and his apes manage to escape by climbing up the pines covering the slopes. Perhaps there was something after all to the Colonel’s wild ravings about apes being stronger and more favored by nature than humans. The Colonel believed that his superiors would send all of their forces to attack him and the film’s opening text stated this force was all that remained of the U.S. military. It’s entirely possible that the remaining threat to the apes has been totally eliminated and they can return to their home near San Francisco and live there forever in peace. The apes, however, choose to continue onward to the oasis heralded by Rocket and Blue Eyes earlier in the film.
The apes march for an unknown amount of time over more sun-baked peaks and valleys than the snowy reaches of the Tower Rock facility. They’ve also managed to recover or locate horses from somewhere as a few of the migrating apes can be seen riding. They arrive at a fertile valley hugging a large lake but it’s unclear where exactly this is. It could possibly be one of the deserts of Southern California or even somewhere in Nevada. When they arrive at their new home Caesar and Maurice rest beneath a tree, apparently at the rear of the procession.
Here we learn, to Maurice’s anxious consternation, that Caesar has been mortally wounded by Preacher’s bolt. How he survived this long with a fatal wound to his chest or how that wound went unnoticed is beyond me, but it serves the story. Caesar reassures Maurice that the apes are strong with or without him which is perhaps not the best lesson to take from the film. After all, Caesar abandoned the apes when he left to assassinate the Colonel which upset everyone a great deal but he didn’t do it to teach them a lesson about self-sufficiency and over-reliance on his leadership. Without him the apes were captured and enslaved by the soldiers and it’s only his return that saved their lives and gave them the courage to resist. It’s perhaps instead a lesson that Caesar has learnt, or something he wishes to be true, and it plays into the film’s theme of “Apes Together Strong” (Rise would be “Knowledge is Power” and Dawn “Ape Not Kill Ape”) but there haven’t been many concrete examples of it since Caesar was instrumental in planning and executing the escape. Afterwards, Caesar looks out at Nova and Bad Ape playing together with his son Cornelius.
Maurice sees this as well and turns to Caesar, speaking aloud to him, to say that his son will know who his father was and what he did for the apes. Caesar passes away smiling, relieved of his burden, a single tear streaming down his cheek. Maurice pets him gently as Caesar’s body lays beneath the tree and the other apes begin to take notice of what has transpired. The camera pans up into the cloudy blue skies, perhaps hinting at the future arrival of visitors from space beyond time and the film ends along with Caesar’s trilogy. It’s not the end of the apes, however, as the filmmakers seem to wish to do more work marrying their reboot with the world of the 1968 film, perhaps ultimately creating their own remake of Planet of the Apes. It’s possible Serkis will attempt the same transition as Roddy McDowall who went on to play his character’s own son except this time the father is Caesar and the son Cornelius.
Where the original Caesar was a kind of messiah, with many parallels in his life to the story of Jesus Christ, the finale of the new Caesar’s trilogy reveals he has instead become Moses. Serkis’ Caesar liberates his people from slavery, destroys the army chasing his people with a miracle (an avalanche instead of a flood), and leads his people across the desert to a promised land he himself cannot enter. It makes the comparison of the apes in War to persecuted Jewish communities inescapable.
The first Planet of the Apes film is a biting social satire essentially accusing our social, political, and military leadership of being backwards savages; the second film accuses them of religiously fetishizing the atomic bomb as if it were a protector and savior and absolving themselves of the destruction it brings. When the series traveled back into the past the apes became oppressed minorities symbolic of all disenfranchised people with imagery meant to mirror the race riots and protests of the late 1960s and early 70s. This idea continued in the reboot series where the apes take on the roles of several groups important to US history. In the 2011 film they once again take on aspects of the African American experience as the apes are stolen from their home in Western Africa and forced to work in America where they are locked up and mistreated. Despite displays of intelligence the apes are infantilized by the human antagonists who refuse to relinquish their own supremacy. It is an all too common symptom of European imperialism and can be seen again in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes where the apes most resemble Native Americans coming into conflict with white Americans over land and in War for the Planet of the Apes where the apes are hunted down and locked up in work camps like Jewish and other minorities in Nazi Germany.
In the first film, Heston’s Taylor is a cynical idealist who heads to the stars searching for something better than 20th Century Earth and instead finds himself in a world even more sectarian, backwards, and savage than the one he left behind. In trying to fight the system he becomes exactly what he hated: an angry and violent killer who believes in little else but his own righteousness. It is emblematic of a dark and misanthropic sense of humor and is such a wonderfully bizarre choice to headline a franchise with. That the films only get progressively darker from there is a testament to the creative forces which brought the series to life.
The later films and sequels made the apes sympathetic which robs the series of much of its metaphorical weight by opening an unfortunate can of worms. The original functions as a deliberately intolerable situation for the human protagonist which allows the audience to understand and sympathize with the frustrations of environmentalists and civil rights activists. Even the “good” apes like Zira and Cornelius doubt and infantilize Taylor. The final reveal that it was Earth all along turns it into a cautionary tale. When the freedom-fighting monkeys become a metaphor for the downtrodden, however, the whole endeavor veers straight into the despicable history of dehumanizing non-whites and the depiction of black people as apes. The stories can still function as simple science-fiction but the subtext gains unfortunate implications. It’s unclear in what direction the fourth installment of the reboot series will take the franchise but interviews suggest the goal is to explore the door opened by the existence of Bad Ape, and others like him, to document the conflicts of other groups of apes interacting with Caesar’s colony.
The ape protagonists are deeply sympathetic and having them go through the early days of society and civilization allows the movies to tell very simple, almost fable-like, stories which might seem childish otherwise. Both Caesars have to learn about suffering and mistreatment as well as the new ape culture’s first murder. The question always seems to be: Will the apes make the same mistakes and therefore learn the same lessons as humans did the hard way or will they be able to create something better? In this fiction the apes are our children who inherit the world from us. After gaining freedom they reject their parents but eventually come to realize just how much like humans they really are. The original series ended on an unusually optimistic note as did the 2001 remake before descending into lunacy.
The later films and sequels made the apes sympathetic which robs the series of a lot of its metaphorical weight by opening an unfortunate can of worms. The original functions as a deliberately intolerable situation for the human protagonist which allows the audience to understand and sympathize with the frustrations of environmentalists and civil rights activists. Even the “good” apes like Zira and Cornelius doubt and infantilize Taylor. The final reveal that it was Earth all along turns it into a cautionary tale. When the freedom-fighting monkeys become a metaphor for the downtrodden, however, the whole endeavor veers straight into the despicable history of dehumanizing non-whites and the depiction of black people as apes. The stories can still function as simple science-fiction but the subtext gains unfortunate implications.While the original series ended on an unusually optimistic note (as did the 2001 remake before descending into lunacy); it’s unclear in what direction the fourth installment of the reboot series will take the franchise but interviews suggest the goal is to explore the door opened by the existence of Bad Ape, and others like him, to document the conflicts of other groups of apes interacting with Caesar’s colony.
The ape protagonists are deeply sympathetic and having them go through the early days of society and civilization allows the movies to tell very simple, almost fable-like, stories which might seem childish otherwise. Both Caesars have to learn about suffering and mistreatment as well as the new ape culture’s first murder. The question always seems to be: Will the apes make the same mistakes and therefore learn the same lessons as humans did the hard way or will they be able to create something better? In this fiction, the apes are our children who inherit the world from us. After gaining freedom they reject their parents but eventually come to realize just how much like humans they really are. In the original novel, it is Humanity’s apathy that causes it to degenerate and lose its position as masters of the universe. In the reboot trilogy it is man’s inhumanity to man which unleashes the dreadful chain of events. Perhaps the greatest lessons these films have to offer us are the most simple,and therefore the most easily overlooked. Humans shall not kill humans. Knowledge is power. Humans together are strong. The word “ape”, after all, also means “to mimic” and like all great science-fiction the Planet of the Apes series offers us a mirror; over the decades it has reflected contemporary issues from nuclear war to genetically modified organisms. These films have remained a powerful and relevant vision, one that has been informed by terror and apocalypse, as well as hope and awe for fifty years now. They’re also just a damn good time at the movies, and are likely to remain so for the next fifty years.
To read the other chapters in our limited series;