War For the Planet of the Apes is the powerful gut-punch of a finale that this phenomenal science-fiction trilogy deserves, cementing it’s place among the best final chapters of all-time.
Five original mid-20th century films, three 2010’s prequel films, and a questionable 2000’s remake with an Apebraham Lincoln in, it’s clear that the Planet of the Apes franchise is ironically one of the most human and realistic series in movie history. It may seem like the series is about the downfall of humans from their ego and self-interest, replaced by an ape society looking to do better with the Earth than we did. But the great secret of the franchise (especially this phenomenal reboot trilogy) is that it’s less about the end of humans and more about the cyclicality of emotional human nature. Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) spent Rise of the Planet of the Apes recognizing the faults in humans, how their greed and selfishness would tear them apart while the apes worked together as one grand unit (“Apes Together Strong” has been his series mantra). The sobering masterpiece of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes completely rewrote his and the audience’s understanding of this situation, showing that ugliness and hatred is a result of ethos invading logos, not specific to one species. Caesar saw all of the unity and superiority that he thought his apes possessed crumble, as the actions of the vengeful, human-hating Koba (Toby Kebbell) proved that a completely idyllic, peaceful society of any race may not be plausible.
Themes of hatred and fear run throughout trilogy capper War For the Planet of the Apes, another immensely powerful and ambitious piece of blockbuster filmmaking operating on an entirely different intellectual level from every other major franchise. As with the past two films, War is a blockbuster that is almost embarrassed to be one, more interested in its themes and characters than in the actual spectacle, but with a scope and grandness that approaches the epic bravado of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There’s actually very little actual “war” in War for the Planet of the Apes, but the consequences of every character’s action (major or minor) are so severe and harrowing, you don’t recognize this lack of battle until after the fact. Apes together may be strong, but what happens when they’re faced with losing their lives and the lives of everyone they love?
It helps that director Matt Reeves, returning from Dawn, is clearly a student of cinema history, drawing influences from some of the greatest films in history in a amalgamation of all of their best qualities. Unlike Dawn, which split the focus fairly evenly between humans and apes to show nuanced sides of the central conflict, War is all about the apes. The film takes Caesar on another sobering journey of self-realization and personal growth in the face of potential extinction, a character piece disguised as a big shoot em’ up extravaganza.
War picks up two years after Dawn, throwing the audience right into the trenches of the ugly conflict between human militia and Caesar’s colony. The casualties are piling up, with hundreds dead on the ape side and some of their own species working for the humans out of fear and self-preserving survival instincts. Caesar attempts to extend an olive branch to the ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson) to stop the fighting, but his hatred of the apes is so strong that this is futile. When tragedy and betrayal strikes at his hand, Caesar becomes engulfed in rage and hate, leaves the main group to track down and kill the human leader ala Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Along the way, his travel band picks up an innocent young orphaned girl who lacks the ability to speak (a very impressive Amiah Miller), further complicating this gunslinger revenge mission.
With his unique abilities, Caesar has always been the de facto leader of these apes, an almost god-like figure whose decisions the group takes with little scrutiny (Koba withstanding). War is the first time that Caesar’s position as leader comes into question based on his own recklessness, as he lets hatred and love drive his actions against the pleas and prevailing heads of his peers. He wrestles with those negative qualities that plague humanity, exhibiting parallel qualities of Koba and the Colonel himself. He’s clearly never seen Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan, putting his own needs over the needs of the many. As massive as the conflict between two species may seem, War wisely makes its story a personal struggle for a character that has gone through quite the transformation in the past few films.
Serkis has seen his workload expand from just two lines in Rise to full-fledged dialogue in War, but his expressiveness and the subtleties of his acting have never been more on display than they are here. With as flawed as Caesar is as a protagonist in this film, it could’ve been very easy to make him unlikeable and unsympathetic. Serkis retains the central heroism of the character, however, as it’s clear through it all that Caesar’s intentions still remain noble. It’s Serkis’ finest and most complex performance, and given his resume that’s saying a ton.
Three films in, it could be easy to take for granted the work of the motion capture artists and the actors helping bring these apes to life, but it should never be understated how truly phenomenal each and every one of these performers are in balancing the primal ape movements and recognizable human traits. Special shout-out should be given to series vets Karin Konoval (Maurice) and Terry Notary (Rocket) for the development of their very important supporting characters, along with newcomer and much needed comic relief Steve Zahn as abandoned zoo chimpanzee Bad Ape. Harrelson, in a role that mixes Marlon Brando and Ralph Fiennes’ terrifying Nazi captain from Schindler’s List, is supremely compelling as the only major human presence, vitally delivering an important info dump in the middle of the film with the dedication of a Shakespearean monologue.
Among the films quoted here by Reeves include (but is not limited to) The Great Escape, Roots, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Saving Private Ryan, and The Shawshank Redemption (sharing feces as an important plot point with that film). The most noticeable films Reeves calls upon are Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Coppola’s war classic in particular is engrained in the DNA of War, with elements of story, theme, and visuals deeply embedded in the film that would be sacrilegious to spoil. Needless to say, War lives up to that film’s less than sterling opinion on unnecessary violent conflict.
What comes as no surprise and doesn’t qualify as a spoiler is Reeves’ impeccable storytelling ability, once again working with long stretches of quiet scenes with no dialogue. In these moments, he leans upon the confidence of his visuals and the poignancy of Michael Giacchino’s brilliant score. More than any of the other prequel films, War approaches the aesthetics made popular by the original series, not afraid to call back but also not hindered by these connections as they reach the original start point.
War for the Planet of the Apes is less centralized and more ambitious than Dawn, and therefore is a tad bit messier as a finale than the middle chapter is. There are some slight missteps in tonal shift, a few minor story nitpicks, and a runtime that is about maybe a scene too long. It’s important to mention these things as to maybe lower the expectations I’ve built up in this review for War, because the film works best when you sit back and let it blow you away with its emotion. This is among the best third films in a trilogy of all-time, stunning in all degrees. It’s a testament to what happens when a film with a huge budget is given careful consideration in all aspects, with the requisite rousing moments expected of it and so much more. War has thrillingly arrived for Caesar and company, but Reeves makes you beg for the fighting to stop before it’s too late.