Nobody expected the revitalized series based upon Planet of the Apes to be anything more than another cash-in on a classic movie. What started with Rise of the Planet of the Apes and has led into Dawn and its most recent sequel War for the Planet of the Apes has morphed into one of the best blockbuster franchises in modern history. Each Apes installment is a technical marvel that are visually dazzling but with strong themes running beneath the surface. Perhaps War for the Planet of the Apes is the final chapter in this revived Apes universe, and if it is Matt Reeves and company have gone out on a high note with a thrilling, engaging action blockbuster with brains to match its impeccable skill.
The events of Dawn loom over the beginning of War, with Caesar (Andy Serkis) still leading his secluded civilization of apes in the woods of Northern California. The film opens with a team of human military men, anti-ape slogans painted on their helmets like “Bedtime for Bonzo,” preparing to invade Caesar’s hideout. The battle that ensues is one of the most thrilling set pieces in cinema this year. Director Matt Reeves takes you deep into the action, and the twists and turns of the battle keep you constantly engaged. Caesar and his apes emerge victorious and release the captured soldiers with a message that peace is possible if he and his apes are left alone. The stern Colonel (Woody Harrelson) ignores the pleas for peace, and stages a nighttime raid that kills Caesar’s wife and son. This turns Caesar into a mix of John Wick and Django, a gun-toting character on a mission for vengeance.
Joined by his trusted apes Rocket (Terry Notary), Maurice (Karin Konoval), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), Caesar scours the desolate wasteland in search of the Colonel and his men. Along the way, they’re joined by Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), an ape that has learned to speak outside the society of intelligent apes, and Nova (Amiah Miller), a young girl incapable of speaking. The quest to find the Colonel’s troops and Caesar’s search for vengeance take them into dark, unexpected corners that has Caesar finding himself with quite a bit in common with his old friend and nemesis Koba (Toby Kebbell), who appears in the nightmares of the ape leader.
Like its predecessors, War for the Planet of the Apes is incredibly refreshing in the way that handles and depicts violence on screen. Often the images are horrific, but there’s such an emphasis on the consequences of actions that runs throughout the entire series. Too often action movies focus solely on spectacle, making the action emotionally and thematically weightless. Matt Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback are intent on examining the cause and effect of the film’s action, and that’s a through line that runs across all three films. There’s a moral and ethical aspect to these movies that eschew standard blockbuster fare.
Also eschewing blockbuster conventions is the way that War doesn’t peddle in cheap nostalgia and unnecessary callbacks. There are little nods to the past films, but nothing distracting or overwrought. There’s also very little expository dialogue, making these films invested more in visual storytelling than explaining every aspect of the story in great detail. The Simian Flu that has laid waste to humanity is evolving, but Reeves doesn’t allow his film to state the obvious. The details emerge from the story and the characters. That’s especially true of the apes themselves, who once again are brought to life using vivid motion capture technology. The content of the story and the performances of the actors bring an emotional context to the simian characters, and they’re often capable of eliciting powerful emotional moments. It’s also astounding that mega-budget blockbuster could have long stretches of silence where characters communicate through sign language.
War for the Planet of the Apes goes into some dark areas before its action-packed conclusion, such as moments where apes are tortured and placed into forced labor camps. Once it reaches its climax, though, War doesn’t sacrifice its thematic brilliance at the altar of spectacle. The climax delivers all the action but it all means something because of the journey that Reeves has put us on for the previous two hours. When the final rounds have been shot and the dust has settled, the audience is left to ponder breathlessly as to what was won and lost in the battle that ensued.
Once again, the motion capture technology for these apes is another bold leap forward for computer effects. And yet again, Andy Serkis delivers a powerful performance aided greatly by the digital wizards behind the scenes. The actors and the artists collaborate to create creatures that have a sense of humanity to them. Serkis digitized as an ape plays in remarkable contrast to the stern military discipline of Harrelson’s Colonel, with one presenting more humanity than their counterpart.
I hope this isn’t the end of this new Planet of the Apes series. War for the Planet of the Apes is another entry in the smartest blockbuster franchise going today. If this is the end, it’s a perfect ending. Movies as assured as War for the Planet of the Apes are rare, combining thrilling action, heartfelt emotion, and thoughtful themes. These movies are so damn good. It makes the fall of humanity an engaging spectacle. And now I openly welcome our new ape overlords.
War for the Planet of the Apes
A stunning piece of blockbuster filmmaking, Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes brings the series to a close with a thrilling, emotional ride in what is the smartest blockbuster franchise going today.