One of the biggest surprises of 2011 was that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was actually a good movie. Director Rupert Wyatt was able to take a 40+ year old concept, update it to fit the modern environment, and overcome the stigma of Tim Burton’s terrible 2001 Planet of the Apes remake to make a truly entertaining and smart blockbuster. 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was even better, mixing the impressive mo-cap work of Rise with an even stronger and deeper story with thought-provoking themes. 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes, once again directed by Dawn’s Matt Reeves, carries the burden of capping the trilogy on a good note. After seeing it, I can officially say that the Planet of the Apes reboot is one of the best film trilogies of all time.
War picks up two years after where Dawn ended, with the colony of highly intelligent apes at war with the small military of humans who have survived the lethal virus released in Rise. Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) never wanted the war to begin in the first place and attempts to negotiate peace between the two sides. However, human leader Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) and his men draw a line that Caesar can’t ignore, prompting him to seek personal vengeance on the Colonel that will determine the fate of the planet once and for all.
From the bat, it barely needs to be stated at this point that the film is a technical masterpiece. Dawn was able to improve on the already strong visual effects of Rise, and War continues the trend. The apes have been digitally rendered so perfectly that every piece of fur on their body seems 100% real. And the motion capture performances of the cast can not be ignored. Serkis’s role as Caesar has been praised in both previous films, but he truly steps up to the plate and carries the picture on his own in War. If the Academy were ever to begin recognizing mo-cap performers as Oscar-worthy actors, now is the perfect time, as Serkis captures all of the pain, anger, desperation, fears, etc. of Caesar in his most complex appearance yet.
Great effects can only get you so far, though, so what makes the Planet of the Apes series so magnificent is its thought-provoking story and character work. Don’t go into War for the Planet of the Apes letting the title fool you. This isn’t a film filled to the brim with cool ape v. human battles. There are one or two, which are certainly awesome, but this film captures the other aspects of war: family, death, suffering, anger, desperation, confinement, oppression. You will feel for both sides. The series has brilliantly set you up to want the apes to beat the humans, but they don’t sacrifice the human motivation. McCollough isn’t without his own chilling backstory, and Harrelson is great at making you feel his desperation within his hard and cold exterior.
Both previous Apes movies had great effects and great storytelling, so what sets this one apart is how it is able to bring its characters to new places. As previously stated, Caesar is truly front and center in this movie. Rise and Dawn showed Caesar’s great heart, strong leadership, and ability to trust, but almost made him seem too devine. Matt Reeves is smart enough to give him true, and very human, flaws in War. Something that McCullough does early on in the film unleashes a side of Caesar we haven’t seen before. At one point, a character compares him to Koba (Toby Kebbell) from the previous film, and Caesar struggles with how true this statement might be. This turns War into a character study, and Caesar becomes an even more compelling character than he already was. Other apes, such as Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary), Caesar’s two best friends, have bigger roles as well. We see Maurice show his fatherly side with a young human girl (Amiah Miller), and Rocket gets the chance to prove just how loyal to Caesar he really is. The apes feel more human than the actual humans at this point.
All that said, War isn’t a completely perfect movie. It suffers the main flaw of the other two: being slightly predictable and formulaic. However, where each of them, including War now, have succeeded is in how they are able to apply the familiar formula in such a unique and compelling way that you really won’t even mind it. The only other potential flaw to be found is “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), the series’s first comic relief character. He is actually very funny, and you may appreciate him adding some lightheartedness to the admittedly grim proceedings. However, if you’re like me, you may just find that he takes you out of the moment. War for the Planet of the Apes is not to be viewed lightly. It’s a very heavy film, but one that is near perfect at capturing the horrors of war and the weaknesses of human (and ape) nature. With characters and a story that you will feel instantly invested in, flawless direction, and Western-inspired visuals that are simply jaw dropping, War manages to stick the landing so gracefully that the new Planet of the Apes trilogy can already comfortably secure its place in the upper echelons of film history.