Picking up a couple of years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his ape colony are now engaged in a full-on war with an army of ruthless humans, led by Woody Harrelson’s vicious Colonel. Locked in an epic battle to determine the planet’s future, Caesar must overcome his inner darkness when things look their bleakest to save his tribe and lead them to the promised land.
I am a massive fan of this franchise, going all the way back to the original five films in the series, which began with the original 1968 Planet of the Apes starring Charlton Heston (What? A Tim Burton remake? I have no idea what you’re talking about). Honestly, I would consider the Apes series one of my all-time favorite franchises, apart from Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and hopefully, one day, the DCEU). The last two films in this current iteration, Rise and Dawn, were far greater than an Apes fan like myself ever could have hoped for. They have become true favorites of mine, which is why War is a film that I’ve been looking forward to for a very long time.
If this movie succeeds at what it set out to do, this trio of films could secure its place in the same conversation as the original Star Wars trilogy, Lord of the Rings, the Captain America movies and Nolan’s Dark Knight films in the upper echelon of the greatest trilogies of all time. So, the question now is, is War for the Planet of the Apes good enough to cement that legacy? Read on to find out…
The first thing that immediately comes to mind when thinking about these films is the incredible visual effects work, which is always driven by phenomenal motion-capture performances, headed up by the mo-cap king himself, Andy Serkis. Serkis is consistently fantastic in these types of roles. I’ve loved him as Gollum, King Kong and even Supreme Leader Snoke, but I truly believe that he has deserved an Oscar for his portrayal as Caesar these past three films. It’s probably not gonna happen, but it totally should. The fact that he can get you to fall in love with this character as much as he has is a real testament to an absolutely brilliant and incredibly powerful performance.
As is well established by now, Caesar is a true leader, with his fellow apes’ best interest always at the forefront of his mind. He definitely stands his ground when he needs to, but what really makes him such a likable character is that he can also be merciful, and even compassionate, when it’s the right thing to do. Unlike the more vengeful Koba (Toby Kebbell), Ceasar’s goal has never been to just exterminate the human race, but to always seek a way to co-exist with them while ensuring the safety of his people. His beautifully-depicted history with James Franco’s character Will from the first film has dictated how he has dealt with humans up to this point, however, it’s all the more difficult to keep those values in mind considering what he and his fellow apes face this time around.
Caesar exhibits a real sense of brotherhood with the members of his tribe (“Apes together strong.”). This is especially apparent with his closest allies: Maurice the wise orangutan (beautifully brought to life once again by Karin Konoval), fellow chimp in arms Rocket (Terry Notary, the series’ brilliant ape movement choreographer and also a fellow King Kong veteran with Serkis, having played the role in Kong: Skull Island earlier this year) and the fierce gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite, who adeptly took over the role from Scott Lang for this film). However, the real heart of Caesar’s journey this time around stems from his immense love for his family: his loving wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), their eldest son Blue Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones), who now has grown fully into adulthood, and their youngest son Cornelius (Devyn Dalton), who is still just a small child.
As usual, the entire mo-cap cast of War for the Planet of the Apes is just terrific, with Serkis, Konoval and Notary, of course, being the clear stand-outs as the only performers to appear in all three of these films since Rise. As much as I love the premise and world of these movies, it’s their performances that really elevate these films to the next level.
One of the things that was apparent from the get-go with this film is that it is super dark, easily the darkest of the trilogy. It’s incredibly emotional throughout and sometimes it just seems as if it won’t let up, but as bleak as it can get at times, there’s always a glimmer of hope shining through. Also, as dark as it is, there’s still a surprising amount of humor sprinkled here and there, mostly thanks to Steve Zahn’s new character, Bad Ape, who we are introduced to along the journey (he’s the Dobby-looking ape seen in the trailers). He’s the kind of character that I could see some of the more critical viewers getting annoyed with, but I thought he was just fantastic. He’s a really funny and endearing new addition to the series. I couldn’t help but smile whenever he was on-screen, his performance just felt so genuine.
Another excellent new addition is a human child the apes call Nova (an obvious nod to the original Planet of the Apes). Amiah Miller, the young actress playing Nova, was great. There’s a real sweetness and innocence to her character, despite the darkness of the world around her. She really added some much needed humanity that the two previous films definitely had but this one otherwise lacked. It’s a tough role to pull off due to some of the specifics of the role that I won’t get into here, but I thought Miller really nailed what was required of her. She may very well have a real future in this business already lined up for her, but we might need to see her in a couple more roles to be sure.
Ultimately, these films are all about apes’ evolution to become the dominant species on Earth, with mankind mostly being responsible for its own downfall. While the previous films had tons of human bad guys to root against, Woody Harrelson’s Colonel was really the only human antagonist this time around that actually mattered in the slightest, aside from one other soldier (played by Gabriel Chavarria) who is threaded throughout the film, the rest are all pretty much nameless and faceless. Woody made for a really great villain with an actually surprising arc. Following his story throughout the film is like a roller coaster where one moment you loathe him, then the next you kinda understand where he’s coming from and might even feel a twinge of sympathy for him, but then it’s right back to “Hey, screw that guy!”
The film is beautifully shot (once again by Dawn cinematographer Michael Seresin), incorporating some gorgeous new scenery and landscapes. It was quite refreshing getting to visit the types of terrain that we have yet to see in these films, from the apes’ new home in a waterfall-obscured enclave (always excellent set design for the ape dwellings in these films) to the snow-covered mountain woodlands where Caesar’s journey takes him. Visually-speaking, though, my favorite shots were of the apes riding horseback on a beach at dusk. That really harkens back to the end of the original ’68 film. Composer Michael Giacchino also returns to deliver a wonderful and engrossing score that works hand-in-hand with all of this stunning imagery.
Matt Reeves did a tremendous job helming this film. He’s a director that really knows how to tell an incredibly emotional story well and keep you invested the whole time, masterfully incoporating all of these things — the marvelous visuals, the music, the characterizations, the action, the pure emotion — to get the absolute most out of every single little aspect of that world. While I was already a big fan of Reeves’ hiring to direct The Batman, this film left me even more stoked now to see him take on the Dark Knight next.
Reeves also proves himself to be a fantastic writer, having co-written the film with Mark Bomback (also returning from Dawn). The pair expertly handled this latest chapter in apes’ rise to prominance. The film introduces some new (for this trilogy, at least) concepts and plotpoints that are natural stepping stones to eventually lead back to the world as it’s seen in the original ’68 POTA film. The film’s producers have already assured us that there will most likely be more movies in this franchise and I can’t wait to see this mythology continue on in future films until we eventually reach that familiar planet of apes.
While I feel this film was just about everything it needed to be, there were still a couple of things that irked me a tiny bit. It’s tough to really delve into most of them in a spoiler-free format like this, but I’ll just say that there are certain things that have been set up that never really get paid off in this film to the extent it seemed like they should have been. Some of those were even things that were set up in the previous films. I still loved the War for the Planet of the Apes we got, but it would have been even better to see everything come full circle. I also think the title might be a little misleading (actually, the title of one of the earlier film’s in this storied franchise, had it not already been taken, would have been a bit more fitting).
Additionally, one major event happens towards the end of the film in which a character (a human) does something that didn’t really seem in line with how that character behaved throughout the entirety of War for the Planet of the Apes. That was a bit of a headscratcher for me. It left me wondering what the point of that was. Furthermore, I was a bit perplexed as to what the message of that moment was really meant to be. It was a big moment, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really change the outcome of what needed to happen in the story, so it wasn’t quite disappointing enough to effect my overall enjoyment of the film. Sorry to be so vague on these points, but it’s really the only way to express my negatives without spoiling the film.
As a whole, War for the Planet of the Apes is a wonderful conclusion to this trilogy. Up until now, I have always had trouble determining which film I like better, Rise or Dawn. I just love both so much. Now, with War, there’s another contender. I’m not sure if this one will end up being my favorite when I look back on these films years from now, but War certainly deserves to stand side-by-side with the first two. In fact, this might even be my new all-time favorite trilogy, apart from Star Wars, of course. At the very least, its one of the strongest trilogies we’ve ever seen as a whole, with no real weak link between the three films. Whether you’re a diehard or casual Planet of the Apes fan, and especially if you’ve enjoyed the two previous installments, this is a film you absolutely cannot miss. It’s definitely worth checking out on the big screen.