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Why the 'Planet of The Apes' series might just be the best trilogy of the 21st Century

The prequel series is that rarest of things: a trilogy without a dud

Why the 'Planet of The Apes' series might just be the best trilogy of the 21st Century
18 July 2017

The successful trilogy, one of cinema’s trickiest beasts. You’ve got nine hours to tell a beginning, middle and end of a saga, create characters that people care for deeply, kill off a few, change a few more and then tie everything up with a satisfying finale. It’s cinematic plate-spinning, basically. A collection of filmmakers must balance character, action, tone and script over three separate parts of a story, knowing that one dud could bring the entire house down.

It’s a difficult science. TheGodfather series couldn’t manage it. Nor could the Sam Raimi Spider-Man series. The X-Men series started promising, but borked the landing. Meanwhile, Hellboy had such a dismal second-showing it didn’t even get to make its final chapter.

The art of the trilogy is so difficult that it's got its own spin-off problem – the two-part trilogy – where the first film is so successful they decide to commit to three, and fail to sustain the magic of the first. That’s why you can skip the Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. The point being: they’re really, extortionately hard not to mess up at some point, and you can chuck millions of bucks and infinite talent at them, and it can all go down the drain.

But somehow, a near-perfect trilogy just delivered its final chapter.

Rather quietly, the Planet of the Apes reboot/prequel trilogy (2011’s Rise, 2014’s Dawn and 2017’s War) has become one of the best trios of our time, boasting one of the most original characters this side of the Millennium.

20th Century Fox / REX

The series has never been afraid to take risks. Over the five original films and the latest trilogy, it’s dealt with the end of the Earth (twice) and dabbled with time travel. It satirised celebrity culture, as well as front-and-centering the black civil rights struggle in the ‘70s. It asked serious questions of what we expect from our political leaders and to what ends people are willing to compromise in the name of the greater good. Sometimes it has been subtle (the ending from the fifth, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, is heartbreaking). Sometimes It has been distinctly unsubtle (In the new War for the Planet of the Apes, soldiers remark: “We are the beginning, and the end!”  to a skinhead Woody Harrelson as they force the apes to literally ‘build a wall’). Regardless of how understated the messaging has been, it’s always been there, and it’s always been thought-provoking.

The latest trilogy explores the backstory of how we end up with a planet ruled by our primate friends. We know apes will eventually rise up and take over the planet before Charles Heston’s astronaut return in the 1968 original, but one of the trilogy’s greatest strengths is in making us forget that fact, and at times even outright deny that it will happen. And so across all three films, we’re left thinking: “What if everyone knew they were doomed unless they worked together, but somehow the world still copped it?”

What if everyone, in the face of an apocalypse, still couldn’t get their various messes together? What would that world look like? How could it happen? In a world where so many of our cinema stories are fascinated with the idea of a saviour – a Chosen One – eventually fulfilling their destiny and preventing the end of the world (or humanity), the biggest moments in the Apes trilogy don’t come from characters mastering skills and defeating the Big Bad, but from people trying to do the right thing and still seeing everything spin out of control.

20th Century Fox / REX

Over the three films, we follow the primate Caesar (masterfully mo-capped by Andy Serkis), who evolves from gifted chimpanzee to the de-facto inheritor of the Earth. We see a character who wrestles with both his changing identity and the task of leading a people. Caesar never wants to rule the planet. He merely wants to secure a quiet corner of the world for his people to live in peace. Instead, destiny is thrust upon him. From tiny sparks, great fires rage and from small moments (like “Ape no kill Ape”) entire moral codes are conveyed. You never yearn for the cathartic release of action scenes in the Apes trilogy – as you might in similar blockbusters – because you know with each and every fight, you draw closer to the end. The end of humans, the end of apes and the end of the trilogy.

The final instalment, War of the Planet of the Apes, is a film which mostly revolves around a bunch of CGI characters communicating via sign language to defeat Woody Harrelson. While that sounds like the synopsis of a straight-to-DVD Dreamworks film, thanks to the storytelling verve of director Matt Reeve and actor Andy Serkis, the movie manages to be several things simultaneously. War of the Planet of the Apes is a war film, it’s a prisoner-of-war story, an allegory for racial tension in America and a treatise on the future of our planet. And then every now and again, there are scenes where a monkey dual-wields machine guns while on horseback.

It’s the conclusion to one of the smartest bits of cinema we’ve had this century and an all-too-rare trilogy that finishes as strongly as it started. The Apes trilogy is the story of series of mistakes, it’s one of the most human stories of this century and it just so happens to be one populated by CGI monkeys. Go seek it out.