Film threes are difficult. For every Return of the Jedi, Return of the King or Toy Story 3 there is a Spider-man 3, X-Men 3 or Terminator 3.
For Sam Raimi’s third outing with the amazing web-head, not only did the studio’s desire to stuff in characters like Venom steal focus from the villains that he wanted to include — Sandman and Harry Osborn’s the Green Goblin — the director’s extended stay with the franchise led to some of the film’s more distasteful tonal risks — dancing, emo Peter Parker anyone?
While not as widely panned, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises was, at the least, considered by most to be a step down from its previous installments. There the writer/director, whether due to a compressed production schedule or waning creative energy, failed to execute satisfactorily conclusions that were, at least, conceptually interesting.
Then, of course, there are films like X-Men 3: The Last Stand and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines — threequels helmed by directors new to their franchises and undeniably baring the marks of their inferior visions, especially when compared to their predecessors. And sometimes the first two chapters of the trilogy have simply have told the most consequential and interesting parts of that narrative, a la The Godfather Part III.
So, how then have Rise, Dawn and War for the Planet of the Apes succeeded where others have failed, and come together to form a trilogy that arguably rivals the likes of Toy Story, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings?
First, the entire trilogy really is a lesson in patient filmmaking. Each chapter boldly elects to explore its own stories, themes and characters fully, embracing the deliberate pace that that focus requires.
Because of the 1968 original film, the audience already knows in which species’ hands this planet ends up. Consequently, the writers could’ve pushed to accelerate any one of their films to get to that known place sooner. Thankfully however, with each chapter, they wholly believed that there were interesting and valuable stories to be explored leading up to that time period.
As such, 2011’s Rise took its entire running time to create a sentient group of apes. Then, in 2014’s Dawn, the writers chose to strip back a majority of those creatures’ dialogue from the original draft, not feeling that they’d yet made the most of that society’s more primitive beginnings. More impressive still, for more than half of that film, they chose to hold off on the inevitable war between ape and man. As exciting as that conflict would’ve been, director Matt Reeves and his screenwriters wanted that second chapter to almost solely explore the point in time when those two societies could’ve potentially coexisted in peace. At the last minute, the filmmaker even cut a couple of that film’s closing shots — featuring human-crewed warships arriving in San Francisco — all in the name of allowing that chapter to patiently tell its own story.
And on their final film in the trilogy, Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback continued to seek out ways to keep the narrative surprising and important, crafting a story that dared to be more than one extended battle sequence.
And so, unlike the Transformers films, the third X-Men installment, or even some of the Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, the computer graphics and production design have all gotten noticeably better and better each film, making the final chapter the most visually rewarding of them all.
Along with that, the production design on each film has been brilliantly used to shoulder much of the “expository load.” On Dawn, for example, the audience was shown through the overgrown, graffiti-covered San Francisco much of humanity’s tragic struggle and ultimately fall to the simeon virus.
Finally, and most importantly, this franchise has maintained an extremely strong and thoroughly compelling point of view throughout its three films. Both director Rupert Wyatt with Rise as well as Reeves with Dawn and War have always ensured that the audience enter and explore the world through the eyes of Caesar.
So, unlike Terminator 3, where characters like Sarah Connor had been lost or actors like Edward Furlong replaced, robbing that film of a point of view consist with the previous films, War once again gave the audience Andy Serkis’ Caesar.
And with every patient step, the audience was allowed to empathize with that character, an individual who was never fully above prejudice, bigotr, or hate. Like a tragic Shakespearean character, he was a king with a blindspot — not only could his beloved apes fall prey to the same sins as mankind, but so could he.
So, even as War does indeed live up to its name, presenting a high-stakes conflict between ape and man, the conflict that was given the most weight and stakes was the one that raged in Caesar’s soul. And through that conflict, one that has developed and grown all the way to the end of the third installment, the audience has been shown the conflict within themselves. Planet of the Apes was never a black and white world where Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus or Woody Harrelson’s The Colonel were made overt villains. It was a world filled with grey, where opposing points of view were fleshed out and layered, challenging the heroes’ ideologies and keeping the conflicts enrapturing to the end.