War for the Planet of the Apes triumphantly completes one of the historically great trilogies in modern cinema. The final act holds the banner proudly for its predecessors, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, delivering a satisfying and emotional conclusion for the fan base.
Caesar (Andy Serkis) wants little more than to be left alone and keep his fellow apes safe. With the news of a desert sanctuary far from humans, the apes only need to make it to the Promise Land to see Caesar’s dream become reality. Even with such reasonable aspirations, that’s not going to happen. A ruthless army Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is determined to win the war against the apes even if he’s the only one interested in fighting.
This is a different role for Harrelson (Now You See Me 2), who typically finds room in even his harshest characters to inject a little fun and charisma. As the Colonel, Harrelson is all business with no time for jokes or even a little cocky swagger. That’s the right way for Harrelson to play it as the humans are definitely the bad guys in this series. A joking, funny adversary might have made him somewhat likable in spite of his despicable actions.
Director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) wastes little time kicking things off with an imaginative and engaging opening act. The apes don’t want a war, but they’re fully capable of defending their turf as the Colonel’s men learn. This was a better fight scene than some final action movies I’ve seen lately.
The special effects team deserves a ton of credit. There’s never a moment that shatters the illusion of the apes not being real. From the movements to the up close shots providing greater detail of hair and facial expressions, it always holds up even during the most ferocious battle scene.
After the Colonel’s latest salvo, Caesar has to decide if revenge or keeping the apes safe is his primary goal. A series of tragic losses tip the scales toward payback. Accompanied by some of his loyal friends, including Maurice (Karin Koval) and Rex (Ty Olsson), Caesar begins his crusade of trying to determine which of his natures will ultimately win out.
That internal struggle is the more significant war in War for the Planet of the Apes. Caesar is justified in seeking revenge, but Reeves and co-screenwriter Mark Bomback raise the point that ultimately there are no winners in an eye for an eye conflict.
Along the way, Caesar and company encounter a pair of new allies, a mute girl (Amiah Miller) and the film stealing Bad Ape (voiced by Steve Zahn). Gifted with an innocent and friendly demeanor, Bad Ape is a late addition to the series, but will likely rival Caesar as the franchise’s favorite ape. Zahn’s performance is so spot-on and endearing. Zahn undoubtedly helps Serkis in drawing attention to the need for some sort of award recognition for motion capture performances.
The middle section loses some of the intensity. A significant portion of the film finds the apes in captivity — essentially having lost and subjected to building a great wall. The Colonel has made enemies of more than apes and makes them his labor force to fortify his defenses. There are some obvious and uncomfortable allegories to slavery as Reeves and Bomback examine the cruelty of humanity when they have power over someone.
That lull in the action is necessary in making the finale even more spectacular with a battle set at a snowy mountain base. It’s an amazing payoff with some heartfelt moments. My only other minor issue with the film is the unfortunate realities of war — not every character makes it to the other side. At some point, the deaths seem a little much, but war cuts both ways.
For Warner Bros., maybe the most encouraging aspect of the film is now Reeves takes his thoughtful blockbuster approach to Ben Affleck’s The Batman. If it’s anything approaching the quality of the Apes installments, we could be in for a Batman film that could dethrone Christopher Nolan’s trilogy.
War for the Planet of the Apes has all the trappings of a summer blockbuster with explosions, guns and crazy action. But what sets this and the series in general apart is that doesn’t come at the expense of its heart and brains. This war is absolutely good for summer entertainment.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures