After three long years, director/writer Matt Reeves made his triumphant return to the rebooted Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy with War for the Planet of the Apes (2017). Picking up after the critically acclaimed Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), which was directed by Rupert Wyatt, Reeves upped the stakes and took the franchise to a new level with the gritty sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). There was a certain flavor that Reeves brought to the project that put it in a league of its own and left the audience thirsting for more of everyone’s favorite ape: Caesar (Andy Serkis). It was only right for Reeves to return and finish Caesar’s tale with War and he did not disappoint. Along with incredible motion capture and VFX work from Andy Serkis and Weta Digital, Reeves took the reigns of this franchise and and established it as one of the most powerful sci-fi epics the world has ever seen.
Two years after the events in Dawn, Caesar and his tribe of apes grew exponentially and began to drive deeper into the woods of San Fransisco. They do not wish to fight, but will do so to protect their land if needed; as they only want to live peacefully among themselves and away from humanity. After an ape hunt ensues, led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) and his soldiers, Caesar and his apes decide to fight back. After attempting to bring peace following the first wave, The Colonel and his soldiers launch a second attack that leaves Caesar with a choice to either seek personal vengeance or safety among his tribe of apes.
As Caesar orders his group of apes to find a sanctuary far away from the San Fransisco woods, he sets off on a quest for The Colonel’s blood to clear his conscious. Although he had intended to embark on this journey alone, some of his most loyal friends/followers would not let him leave without their aid. Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) lend their support and together they work to hopefully put an end to the war between man and ape. After coming across what seemed to be an abandoned militant outpost, they befriend a mysterious human girl named Nova (Amiah Miller), who has lost her ability to speak, and a stray chimp who simply goes by the name of “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn). To Caesar’s luck, Bad Ape just so happens to know where The Colonel and his soldiers are headed, and during their travels, Caesar quickly learns that a greater challenge aside from his personal vengeance lies ahead.
Although War proves to be the final chapter in this specific prequel story, there’s enough tissue left to work with that could possibly make room for future installments (better connecting with the beginnings of the 1968 Planet of the Apes film). Aside from successfully completing Caesar’s journey, War also serves as a compelling standalone summer blockbuster. Even if you haven’t seen the previous two prequel films (which you totally should), War briefly catches you up to speed on specific plot details you need to be aware of so you can comfortably follow along its story. However, the one downside to blindly watching this movie is the fact that the emotional weight among its characters won’t carry over as well. As exciting as the action and concept of man vs. ape can get, these stories are ultimately about strong character development (in this case, that character is Caesar). It enhances the experience if you’ve taken the time to sit down and watch Rise and Dawn beforehand, but doesn’t ruin it completely if you’re merely looking for a good time at the movies.
With War, Reeves matches (and in some way exceeds) his efforts on Dawn. From the dark imagery and brooding cinematographic atmosphere, to some of the most photorealistic motion captured characters you’ll ever see, War delves into a script that is deep and emotionally captivating. The usage of sound, including a terrific score composed by Michael Giacchino, complements the storytelling beats and carries just as much emotion as the characters you’ll see on the screen. Giacchino skillfully moves between tones of melancholy and excitement, utilizing the music in a way that gives it its own character. You will go through a rollercoaster of emotions throughout the film due to clever writing and well woven music, and it’s quite the experience.
Behind the darkness and intensity of the battle sequences, there are moments of levity and affection scattered throughout the film. The plot structure is robust, and although can feel explosive and high-octaned at times, is self contained and ultimately draws you back to the characters. The concept of war between man and ape is pushed through the perspectives of the apes and their message is very clear: humanity is destroying itself and doesn’t deserve to survive. Although Nova may provide for a bright spot within humanity, her inability to speak and fully function as a human separates her from the argument. She serves as more of a new beginning within a civilization that will no longer be the dominant species; resulting with humanity ultimately becoming compliant to the apes.
As mentioned earlier, Andy Serkis’ motion capture work with Caesar is phenomenal; he has become the heart of this franchise. Over the course of about seven years and three films, Serkis has crafted one of the most complete (and complex) non-human characters in movie history. With each film, Caesar has learned from his mistakes and has arguably reached the peak of his intelligence with War. With Koba’s memory haunting him from time to time, Caesar is reminded what he’s fighting for and what his life decisions have led him to. Although he questions whether his hatred and prejudice towards humans clouds his moral judgment, his experience and knowledge from the past provides for just enough clarity to have him realize that he needs to be better than those he fights in order to serve as the righteous leader his apes see him as. It gives depth to the character and speaks volumes on his development.
The humans aren’t given too much screen time throughout War, but their presence is definitely felt. This third chapter serves as the beginning of the fall of mankind and Reeves makes sure you know it. Riding on the tail end of humanity is Harrelson’s character of The Colonel and he’s excellent with what he’s given. His outlook on the conflict between mankind and ape is very straight forward, but strong enough to make him feel like a true villain who poses a serious threat. He brings a sense of menace to his role that tests Caesar’s strength as a leader while challenging his morality. You understand why he’s hellbent on destroying the apes and wanting to preserve what’s left of mankind and it’s chilling.
War for the Planet of the Apes delivers as both a complete blockbuster film and fitting close to Caesar’s tale. There’s a great blend of clever cinematographic storytelling that psychologically breaks you apart as well as popcorn entertainment value. There’s not much this movie gets wrong aside from a couple CGI blemishes, but in no way does that hold the movie down. It’s truly one of the most powerful films of 2017.
FINAL SCORE: A