Spoilers below for the entire trilogy!

This month brings the conclusion of the PLANET OF THE APES trilogy. To commemorate ComicsVerse is going Ape! We will be focusing on all things simian by looking at some of our favorite pop culture primates. For more articles in this series, click hereIn this piece, we examine the new PLANET OF THE APES trilogy including WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. 

In a review of Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA (2014), film critic David Ehrlich proposed the idea of a “post-human blockbuster.” He referred to a film where the human characters were secondary to the importance of the non-human star, in this case, Godzilla. As technology allows visual effects artists to create impossible creatures with few limitations, a blockbuster uninterested in the actions of humans would become inevitable. However, Ehrlich’s thesis is more a philosophical one rather than a literal one. He says in his review that “Godzilla is both humanity’s reckoning and its salvation, a response to our unchecked parasitic relationship with the planet and a reminder of our ultimately supporting role as stewards rather than beneficiaries.

I would argue that the post-human blockbuster began with the original PLANET OF THE APES. In that film, astronaut Tom Taylor (Charlton Heston) expresses his misanthropic outlook with a simple philosophy: “I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man.” The apes’ fear of mankind is laid out in the form of biblical dogma:

“Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death”

The original film even ends with a revelation that Taylor never escaped Earth and mankind destroyed itself through nuclear war. The Statue of Liberty, the ultimate symbol of mankind’s intellectual capacity for justice, lies rusting in the sand, its meaning forgotten.

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This belief in man’s cruelty made one course of action obvious for the sequels: make the apes the heroes. In PLANET OF THE APES and BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, our entry point into the story were human characters. After these two films, the apes are the heroes. From ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, the franchise explained how the apes took over with the ape characters framed as the protagonists. Audiences found themselves sympathetic with characters which would lead to the subjugation of humanity. Who could blame them? Seeing the destruction of the Statue of Liberty only supports Taylor’s thesis that there has to be something better than man.

In 2011, the release of Rupert Wyatt’s RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, followed by Matt Reeves’ sequels, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, brought this post-humanity idea to its logical conclusion. Human beings in this trilogy are the antagonistic force, the cruel, vain masters of the apes, reinforcing one ultimately bleak message: humanity doesn’t deserve this planet.


War for the Planet of the Apes

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES avoids plenty of typical prequel cliches by rooting its hero in primal (pun intended) myths. The film is more interested in Caesar (Andy Serkis) than answering questions about the original film. The name Caesar is more than an Easter Egg reference to the original films. It is an echo of the ancient heroes that build the foundation for this character. Caesar belongs to two worlds, and his exposure to both makes him a leader with divine purpose. His story mirrors the journeys of Moses, Siddartha, and King Arthur. The difference here is that the cruelty and greed that the hero stands against is not one group or individual, but rather an entire species.

RISE opens with an inversion of the original film: humans hunting apes rather than the other way around. Much of RISE is focused on mankind’s egotistical belief that we are the masters of the Earth and all the creatures on it. Even Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco), who is ostensibly our human protagonist, is a cog in this human-centric machine. His primary occupation involves using chimps as helpless medical test subjects. Rodman is a benevolent Dr. Frankenstein. His hubris is driven by compassion first rather than ego. His belief in his new Alzheimer’s curing drug is absolute. He is even willing to test the drug on his own Alzheimer’s ridden father Charles (John Lithgow) without knowing the consequences. His intentions may be good, but Rodman encapsulates the flaws in human ego. We are more concerned with being correct than with the consequences of proving ourselves correct.

Caesar is a product of those consequences. He is orphaned after his mother violently attacks the doctors trying to experiment on her. Caesar’s mother acted in defense of her child, but humanity, unsurprisingly, reacted with violence before understanding. Rodman’s project is shut down, and to protect Caesar from euthanasia; he brings him home.

From here, Caesar finds himself caught between the world of man and ape. He wears the clothes of humans but cannot ever assimilate to the culture of humanity. Screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver were partly inspired by a story of a chimp raised in suburban Illinois. The chimps inevitably became violent and aggressive when they grew up, but their story proved man believes it can control nature.

Apes Together Strong

Eventually, Caesar meets a similar fate as these chimps raised by humans. Caesar is punished for trying to protect Charles, and he begins to experience first hand man’s indifferent cruelty towards animals. He finds himself trapped in a corrupt animal reserve for primates and must connect with the species he has evolved beyond.

Caesar embraces his animal nature when he realizes Rodman will always see him as inferior. When Rodman arrives to free Caesar from the animal shelter he brings with him a leash — a symbol of man’s dominance over Caesar’s animal nature. The creation rejects its creator to better its own kind. He bestows upon them the same gift of knowledge given to him. He becomes a savior to his fellow apes with a communion of chocolate chip cookies and a baptism of experimental drugs.

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With an army of newly intelligent apes, Caesar begins the first major uprising in the battle against humanity. It’s worth noting that Caesar’s primary objective here is not to harm humans but to escape them. Caesar’s simple philosophy of “Apes. Together. Strong.” becomes the ethos that guides them to their new home in the California redwoods. Here Caesar plans to build a new shelter for the apes away from humanity.

Compared to other films in the PLANET OF THE APES franchise, RISE ends on a relatively hopeful note. Caesar and his ape compatriots will, seemingly, be left in peace. However, the specter of death still lingers over humanity. The very drug that gave the apes their intellect is deadly to humans, and the virus is spreading via an oblivious host. While that spells destruction for humans, Caesar’s utopia also lingers in a delicate balance. Koba (Christopher Gordon/Toby Kebbell), an ape who carries literal scars from human abuse, is not as capable of seeing the good in humanity as Caesar. As the humans face extinction, Caesar will meet his Brutus.


War for the Planet of the Apes

DAWN opens with a grim update on humanity since the previous film. We see a montage of society’s collapse due to the ravaging effects of what has been dubbed the “simian flu.” The light of humanity has been snuffed out while nature has begun to take back the world. The apes now live in peace, but one careless gunshot disrupts that peace. The gunshot comes from Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who belongs to a group of humans that have set themselves up in the remains of San Francisco. The leader, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), manages to defuse the tension, but the damage has been done. Peace between man and ape will now be an impossible task.

Caesar’s priority is to protect his newfound ape family, but he still has lingering trust in human beings. Caesar tries to show humans more kindness than they have ever shown apes. He wants to find in these humans the same compassion that Rodman had. He allows the humans to make their way through the ape territory to repair a nearby dam. Many of the apes protest, in particular, Koba. Koba appears only briefly in RISE, but he certainly makes an impression. His visage is gnarly after a lifetime of being a test subject. One look at him tells the story of years of human cruelty. “Human work” is defined as violence and pain to Koba. Even though Caesar gave him freedom, Koba believes he is misguided in trusting humans. In some ways, Koba ends up being correct.

Carver still manages to sneak a gun into the ape encampment. Once again, it’s the presence of a gun that fractures any hope for peace. DAWN shows that humanity’s greatest weakness is its self-destructive need to feel secure. The key word there is “feel.” It’s often the possession of a weapon that makes people feel secure, and it’s that insecurity that seeks a gun as a crutch.

It is always “safer” to the insecure mind to hold a weapon to threaten rather than extend a hand toward peace. The only reason Carver is afraid is that of his own mistakes with a gun in the first place. Humans will always damn themselves because of their quickness to enable the cycle of violence. Carver gets scared, so he shoots an ape, then he becomes afraid of reprisal, so Carver refuses to relinquish his gun and creates more distrust and fear.  

Et Tu, Koba?

In fact, it is that very same cycle of violence that Koba becomes a part of. Koba spies on the human camp and discovers their massive cache of weapons. His immediate reaction is to prepare the apes for war. To do that, he must take power from Caesar. Koba attempts to assassinate Caesar. While Caesar survives the attempt on his life, Koba takes control of the chaos and rallies the apes for an assault on the human camp.

What follows is a nightmarish sequence of fire and bullets. Koba and his troops howl with primal screams as they descend upon the humans. What makes this all so terrifying is that, despite the fur, the apes aren’t much different from human beings. As Caesar recovers from his wounds, he reflects that he truly loves apes more than humans, but he is beginning to see that maybe they aren’t as different as he once believed. Perhaps Taylor was wrong; maybe there isn’t anything better than man. But isn’t that the ultimate human weakness? The ability to hate someone you are not all that different from?

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Caesar manages to stop Koba’s reign of terror, but in the process, he must break the ultimate ape law. In the ape society, the number one law is “ape shall never kill ape.” The law is a noble but naive one. Caesar’s idealistic belief is that apes are better than humans because they can resist killing one another. After their battle, Koba hangs perilously over the edge of a demolished tower. Caesar stands over the hanging Koba, a reversal of Koba killing the executive from Gen-Sys in RISE. Koba reminds Caesar of the first law, but Caesar tells Koba he is no longer an ape. With that declaration, he drops Koba to his death.

Here’s where we reach an interesting question: what does Caesar mean by this declaration? Does he no longer see Koba as an ape because of his human-like propensity towards violence? If we return to the idea of the post-human blockbuster, we have a pronouncement of humanity being the inferior species. Apes should hold themselves to a higher standard. But what makes Caesar the one who can decide who gets to be “ape?” To paraphrase another animal-centric tale, are some apes more equal than others? Caesar believes apes can be better than humanity, but putting some apes above others is a shockingly human decision. Koba may not have slain Caesar, but the ape paradise is lost. Now the war approaches.


When we find Caesar again, he has grown even further into his role as a leader. The years have been kind to the apes. Caesar’s sons have grown up. There is a little more grey in that once jet black coat of fur. Following the events of RISE, the apes are in hiding from the military forces that arrived too late to rescue the humans of San Francisco. Caesar and his followers have managed to make a new, isolated home for themselves, but peace rarely lasts. The rift between Caesar and Koba made many apes choose sides.

The rogue apes with loyalties to Koba find themselves in the service of the military forces led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After defeating a group of the Colonel’s forces, Caesar’s compassion once again becomes his greatest strength and weakness. He shows mercy to a group of the Colonel’s soldiers in exchange for peace between their groups. Peace, however, is not an option.  Caesar’s wife and oldest son are killed in an attempt on Caesar’s life. Caesar, with nothing but vengeance on his mind, makes it his mission to kill the Colonel.

The line between humans and apes begins to blur in WAR. The film gives Harrelson’s character a name. It’s significant that the actor often refers to himself simply as “the Colonel.” He has shed his human identity and is now a manifestation of military might. His only goal is to fight off the apes to preserve the future of human beings. The Colonel certainly represents the pinnacle of humanity’s savagery, but the devolution of mankind, as seen in the original PLANET OF THE APES, has also begun to make humans more savage.

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The Colonel’s belief that humanity is on its way to extinction has driven him to madness. His belief is reinforced by the discovery of a new side-effect to the simian flu. Those humans who were immune are experiencing sudden decreases in mental faculties. Once healthy humans suddenly lose the ability to speak. It’s as if apes and humans are moving in opposite directions on the evolutionary chain.

With Caesar away from his followers on his vendetta, the Colonel captures the apes as they make their exodus to their new home in the deserts outside California. Caesar’s bloodlust made him forget his responsibilities. The specter of Koba haunts Caesar in the form of hallucinations. Koba’s appearance is a manifestation of his guilt over forsaking his people to satisfy his need for revenge. When captured, Caesar becomes a simian Spartacus. He stands up to the abuse his fellow apes face in the camps and suffers punishment for it. While captured, Caesar is often tortured by one of the turncoat gorillas, Red (Ty Olsson). Red mocks Caesar for his weakness against the Colonel, but Caesar pities Red. Caesar questions if Red’s choice to abandon the apes was worth the cost of his whole identity. Through Caesar, the apes maintain a solidarity that the scattered remnants of humanity cannot.

Beware the Beast Man

In both RISE and DAWN, human beings are portrayed as a mix of both merciful and merciless. By contrast, WAR exposes humanity at its most fragile and therefore most dangerous. As Caesar and his circle of friends attempt a daring rescue, the Colonel’s camp is beset upon by a larger group of military forces determined to end the Colonel’s rogue actions. When Caesar finally gets the chance to kill the Colonel, he discovers that he has succumbed to the new effects of the virus. He can no longer speak and Caesar, rather than end his life, leaves the Colonel to rescue his own people.

As Caesar makes a desperate attempt to protect the escaping apes from the onslaught of the Colonel’s men, he is shot by one of the men he spared earlier in the film. Typically, this would be the moment where the human being realizes he should show Caesar mercy to repay him for saving his life. However, unlike the previous films, WAR’s portrayal of humanity is too far gone to remember things like mercy. Before the soldier can finish Caesar off, he is engulfed in an explosion. Caesar is rescued by none other than his fellow ape, Red.

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Red sacrifices his own life to rescue Caesar as a civil war rages around them between two factions of humanity. Here we see the moment where humanity truly relinquished the right to the planet. They truly have devolved, not because of a loss of speech, but because of an inability to cooperate. The apes could find it within themselves to forgive their enemy, but human beings could not.

The soldiers cheer as they seemingly win the battle. The faceless humans, covered by ski masks, turn their weapons toward Caesar. In the distance, the rumbling of snow builds. The foolish war of humanity results in a massive avalanche of snow, burying all of the human beings as they celebrated their pointless victory. Nature destroys humanity with no one but themselves to blame.

Something Better

The original APES films have a reputation for their incredibly bleak endings, ranging from revelations of Earth’s fate to planet extensive destruction, to humanity’s enslavement. The new trilogy doesn’t quite follow the same pattern, but only because we are watching these films from a different perspective.

We see these films removed from humans and the point of view of the apes — innocent, flawed, but good creatures. As we watch, we hope they learn from the mistakes of humans. As WAR ends, we feel relief that they were able to cast off the shackles of humans. Our time on this planet, according to these films, will end. Maybe the end of humanity will be terrifying. But at least PLANET OF THE APES knows there’s something after us. Something better than man.

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