What the End of 'War for the Planet of the Apes' Means for the Franchise's Future
This post contains major spoilers for War for the Planet of the Apes.
They don't make franchises like they used to, said this millennial who just turned into a grandpa.
OK, but seriously, it's true. Just a decade ago, Lana and Lily Wachowski's Matrix movies, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, Christopher Nolan's Batman reboot could conclude in a solid three-picture arc. The "trilogy" is a bygone notion based on character motivation and audience tolerance -- at a certain point, even our favorite heroes had to check out. Today the franchise is everlasting thanks to inter-connected worlds and undeniable box office receipts. Sure, the Guardians of the Galaxy series as we know it could wrap up by the time Vol. 3 hits theaters in 2020, but there's always a chance they'll creep back up in an Avengers team-up, crossover with Thor or wield comic book logic to reignite the series with new stars and new adventures. Michael Bay's maligned Transformers movies just petered out with this summer's fifth installment, The Last Knight, but producers insist there's still enough story to grant Bumblebee his own standalone in 2018. The trilogy is a little too tidy for modern Hollywood.
Which makes the latest Planet of the Apes series all the more miraculous. Sold as an origin story prequel to the original 1968 film, which saw Charlton Heston's astronaut George Taylor crashland on a planet of humanoid apes, only to discover this was his homeworld, Earth, eons into the future, 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes sidestepped the action bravado of most reboots to focus on a adolescent Caesar, future leader of the apes, and the special-effects technology that could make him a living, breathing soul (and even more "human" than his costar, James Franco). Rise positioned humans as the major threat to the planet, escalating abuse against highly intelligent animals to a breakout rampage across the Golden Gate Bridge. The film dovetailed into Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a war movie that saw Caesar ascend to the position of peacekeeping leader, and make moral decisions that would affect both man and ape. Throughout both pictures, nuanced spectacle, where a glimmer in an ape's high or the tics of his first steps towards vocal articulation were as riveting as tank-on-tank battle, focused attention on our hero, and his march towards destiny.
Caesar's journey ends definitively in War for the Planet of the Apes, providing a refreshing throwback to those not-too-distant days of trilogies. There are a few stages of fallout: First, "The Colonel" (Woody Harrelson), the paramilitary leader driven by nationalistic fear of ape-kind, reverts to animalistic muteness as his fortress falls to another human faction. Unlike Caesar, The Colonel has slaughtered his own to save his people, gone to war against the civilization he's supposedly defending, then finds himself taking his own life in front of an "inferior" foe. War for the Planet of the Apes isn't nihilistic, but through the repetition of Caesar's mantra, "ape not kill ape," director Matt Reeves assures us the making numbered on screen is the mankind we're living in right now. The futuristic vision of 1968's Planet of the Apes a dystopia. In War for the Planet of the Apes, it's sweet relief.
Which leads into the second, finite ending, the Apes take on Exodus. After an avalanche wipes out the "winners" of the human-on-human firefight (the Red Sea of Planet of the Apes lore), a wounded-but-able Caesar amasses his followers and points to the East, to a desert discovered by his fallen son. The apes become the literal diaspora, walking for what we can only imagine to be 40 days and 40 nights, until reaching a new paradise: the location of the 1968 Planet of the Apes. And like Moses, Caesar dies within miles of their Promised Land. There is no alien technology or ancient spell that can bring him back for future installments. There is no post-credit scene to promise fans more. Planted firmly in reality, the death of our hero is the end of the saga.
This saga anyway. According to Planet of the Apes producer Peter Chernin, War for was always envisioned as an emotional ride with a clearly marked exit.
“We made a very conscious decision frankly, when we started thinking about this seven or eight years ago, to look at these three movies as a trilogy in a lot of ways," Chernin told Den of Geek in May. "It was inevitable from the moment apes gained intelligence that apes and humans were going to be on a collision course for what would be the dominant species on Earth. And this movie is the war to resolve that dominance. We've always looked at this as a three-part story. And the appropriate ending of that story is to see which species dominates.”
The twist is that, from the very beginning, the apes' "domination" is defensive and reactive at best. The '68 version saw the ape government rounding up surviving humans like militarized pest control. By the end of War, Caesar and his most loyal followers see peace in the desert, and don't mind bringing the understanding -- specifically a young, mute girl they name Nova -- into the fold. There is society to rebuild, and unless the humans want to pick up their guns and go back to war, there shouldn't be a future conflict to speak of.
There's a worry that extending the Apes series beyond Caesar's arc could do the same, and the allure of the motion-capture special effects, brought to life by Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, could wear off. But for a guy like Reeves, who knows the whiz bang pow whizzes, bangs, and pows even louder when complex characters you care about are involved, there's a tug from the Apes franchise that can't be denied. Nor can the returns; Rise for the Planet of the Apes $481 million worldwide. Dawn followed up with $710 million. War is expected to go out with an even bigger total.
The beauty of Apes, and why a second trilogy could triumph, is that they don't seem to be held back by fans or reverence. Unlike Iron Man, no one is clamoring for a faithful adaptation of Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel, La Planète des Singes, the tome that started it all. Anything could happen, even more so with Caesar out of the picture. And if it's anything like humanity, the ape civilization could all go to hell -- that's worth a watch.