'War for the Planet of the Apes' Review: An Intense, Engaging, Deeply Satisfying Conclusion to the Trilogy
If ever you’re looking for justification for modern remakes of classic movies, look no further than the new Planet of the Apes trilogy. Taking some of the very general themes from the 60’s and 70’s pentalogy, this new franchise (which began with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continued with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) is instead a much more intelligent, contemplative series that uses action intermittently, while focusing mainly on a serious, thought-provoking narrative. It focuses on the ever-increasing tribe of genetically modified apes who grow ever-more intelligent and their efforts to find a place in a world of humans that often despise them. The newest release, War for the Planet of the Apes, concludes the story in an intense, engaging, deeply satisfying fashion.
The film picks up shortly after Dawn. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is still the leader of the apes, who have found temporary sanctuary in Southern California’s Muir Woods, only to have that sanctuary invaded by a new army of humans. After suffering terrible losses, Caesar sends his massive tribe of apes to find a safer haven while he, orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and fellow chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary) head off to find the malevolent head of this new faction of humans, known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). It is a quest of vengeance, as an enraged, deeply conflicted Caesar seeks retribution for the deaths caused by the Colonel and his troops. Along the way, they pick up a couple of other orphans of this ongoing war, both human and ape, and begin a quest that is part revenge, part redemption, part salvation.
And it’s absolutely amazing. War for the Planet of the Apes does so many things so wonderfully well that it’s actually almost startling to realize how engaged you are over a movie starring CGI apes. Most of the movie revolves entirely around the apes, with the only time humans are onscreen being when they’re interacting directly with the apes themselves. But through a combination of utterly spectacular special effects, insightful and emotionally intelligent dialogue, and the deft direction of Matt Reeves (who also directed Dawn), we’re treated to a truly enjoyable, exciting, engaging film. Despite it’s title, War is far from an action movie. Indeed, its best moments are simply watching Caesar and his family and friends as they explore a stunning world of mountains and forests, through sunshine and snowfall. The cinematography is outstanding, and the lush natural environment almost becomes its own character. The film is often eerily quiet, featuring limited, but well-placed music and letting the characters tell the story, keeping it mercifully free of the bombast and cacophony that plagued other summer releases (I’m looking at you, Transformers).
There’s a fascinating relationship between all of the characters that gives the film a different kind of complexity — one of the most riveting and uncomfortable concepts are the apes who, through fear or hatred, have betrayed Caesar and taken up with the Colonel. Called “donkeys” by the human soldiers, they’re treated marginally better, but that little bit of power — despite the hateful, baleful stares and language of their masters — gives them a motivation for their treason, even as they’re clearly filled with a special kind of self-loathing. Meanwhile, Caesar is quiet, contemplative, but also fiercely protective of his kind, evolved into a leader by being the very first intelligent ape. And while most of the other apes do not speak, the incredibly nuanced and subtle facial expressions, movements, and graceful sign language create fully fleshed-out individuals. As he so often is, Harrelson is extraordinary, playing The Colonel as a Kurtzian zealot with surprisingly understandable motivations, even if his methodologies are those of a madman and his techniques are born of cruelty and viciousness. That said, he’s not some raving, foaming loony. Instead, The Colonel is quietly intimidating, a man who forcefully maintains a chilling, almost easygoing calm, even while plotting horrific acts of genocide. But as has been the case throughout this series, it’s Serkis who is the most impressive, using voice, expression, motion to convey a wealth of emotion and experiences (seriously, if Serkis doesn’t get a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy soon, we should riot).
War for the Planet of the Apes is an excellent example of what you can do with a big-budget, effects-laden film to make it into something marvelous, instead of into a crass spectacle. Its effects are astonishing, and become a vibrant, critical part of the story itself. But the effects are not the story — instead, the characters, their lives and loves and losses are. Their search for sanctuary in a world decimated by a disease wrought from the same thing that made them who they are has created a canvas unlike many others. It’s a remarkable achievement, and War for the Planet of the Apes concludes the story of Caesar and his tribe perfectly. It’s a picture of surprising depth, funny at the right times, exciting when it needs to be, filled with struggle and tragedy and joy.