The Politics of War for the Planet of the Apes

Warning: SPOILERS ahead for War for the Planet of the Apes


Let's get one thing out of the way right up front: The Planet of The Apes franchise has always been political, and not just in the way that any story about dystopian societies are innately political. From the start, the Apes films (with the possible exception of the non-canonical Tim Burton-directed installment) have made an extra effort to frontload their narratives with pointed messages that often addressed the most controversial social topics of their day; in keeping with the common focus of the sci-fi genre of the era on using fantastical themes (see also: the original Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, etc) to symbolically explore real-world topics.

The original film satirized the then still-controversial evolution debate and touched on themes of slavery, class and government corruption. The sequel (Beneath The Planet of The Apes) was a bleak warning about the dangers of a nuclear holocaust. Escape From The Planet of The Apes, the third installment, starts out as a fish-out-of-water comedy but shifts into a grim allegory for persecuted immigrant families. Conquest of The Planet of The Apes (part 4) was a barely-concealed message-movie about then-recent "race riots" that came down so firmly on the side of the rioters that the studio ordered extra dialogue be added to the finale for fear of being seen as directly inciting violence. Even the much-maligned fifth film, Battle For The Planet of The Apes, is fixated on questions of who gets to write history - and why.

Now, with the release of War for the Planet of the Apes we've come to the end of this "prequel trilogy;" which began as an animal rights parable in Rise of The Planet of The Apes, continued into a "can't we all just get along?" culture-clash allegory (spoiler: we could not) and now concludes with a post-apocalyptic revenge drama that segues into a pitch-dark P.O.W. concentration-camp saga... that's also very much about white-hot present-day controversies surrounding immigration, national-identity, racism, culture-clashes and (maybe) certain specific real-world political leaders.

In case you need a refresher course on the property: The Rise/Dawn/War prequel trilogy aims to provide a modernized backstory for how the world gets to the smart talking apes/mute de-evolved humans scenario seen in the original series. In the new narrative, a biologically-engineered retrovirus originally designed as part of a cure for Alzheimer's Disease had a side-effect of granting human-level intelligence to an ape named Caesar (Andy Serkis) who, after witnessing and suffering abuse of apes by humans, used the virus to give others intelligence like his and led an ape uprising on the American West Coast. Some time later, the virus itself mutated and became lethal - utterly devastating the human population of Earth as Caesar's tribe of intelligent apes grew more powerful and numerous at the same pace.

War finds the two species at what feels like the end of their conflict, with Caesar's now nomadic migrant population of Apes beset by a powerful new enemy in the form of Woody Harrelson's Colonel McCullough - a military demagogue leading what he claims is the last human army in an offensive assault on Caesar and the apes. When things get personal, Caesar opts for a mission of revenge but, in the process, makes a series of startling discoveries: The virus has mutated once again, now causing the loss of speaking-ability in an increasing number of humans. Moreover, the Colonel doesn't necessarily have the rest of humanity behind his solutions - which involve (most publicly) rounding up the Apes while Caesar is distracted by his quest and putting them to work in his army/cult's forced labor camp.

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Key Release Dates
  • War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) release date: Jul 14, 2017
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