In 2011 20th Century Fox went about launching a new, modernized look at one of the most iconic franchises in film history, the “Planet of the Apes”. Since then we’ve seen the apes rise, we’ve seen the dawn of their era, and now we get to see the war for the planet play out in the final installment in the initial trilogy of this reboot effort “War for the Planet of the Apes” which, in my opinion, is one of the most pleasing and satisfying films of the year so far and may just live on as one of the greatest trilogy closers in cinematic history.
“War for the Planet of the Apes”, which I will shorten to “War” for this review, picks up some time after the events of the second film, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, with Andy Serkis’s Caesar and his tribe at war with human militants who have teamed with apes loyal to the previous film’s rebel ape Koba to hunt down and destroy ape kind. After an attack from a vicious colonel, played by Woody Harrelson, strikes hard at Caesar’s heart the leader of the apes goes on a revenge quest along with orangutan Maurice, chimpanzee Rocket, and gorilla Luca by his side. The two meet up with comical relief chimp Bad Ape, played by Steve Zahn, and mute human orphan Nova, played by Amiah Miller, along the way and find themselves, and their kind, stuck in the middle of an impending human conflict that puts the fates of both species in jeopardy.
I would be remiss if I didn’t start what promises to be a very positive review by focusing on the epic job Andy Serkis does returning to one of his greatest roles as Caesar. Serkis once again brings this ape leader to life in a way few other talents ever could, showing growth in physique and personality since Caesar and his ape friends first escaped to the woods outside San Francisco. This film is filled with other great performances with Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Judy Greer, Max Lloyd-Jone, Devyn Dalton, Sara Canning, Michael Adamthwaite, Aleks Paunovic, and Alessandro Juliani all portraying apes in the film, giving each one a memorable and unique personality that keeps them from blending in with the crowd and makes them oddly human in nature as they come together to free their kind from the torture and shadow of man.
Steve Zahn deserves special credit here. Aside from Serkis, Zahn may be the most memorable ape performance in this film as the comical Bad Ape, a former zoo animal who proved to be dorky, clumsy, and pretty much everything else you would expect from a comic relief character. Zahn is fantastic in this role, creating a contrasting personality to the more serious and professional apes we’ve seen in the series so far and adding a whole new dynamic to our group of ragtag ape freedom fighters while also creating some levity in a film that has some very powerful and serious moment. I’ll touch on those very moments a bit later.
Lets look at the humans and the films main villain, the unnamed Colonel. Woody Harrelson is a great villain in this film, but proves to be one you might find yourself sympathizing with to some extent. He’s a hardened warrior and one who has the best interests of his species in mind as a new strain of the virus that ended human’s reign threatens the world again. He sees the apes as enemies, but shows understanding for Caesar and his quest for revenge. It’s rare that we see a villain so stripped down and self-aware. He’s almost unapologetically brutal in his approach to the reality of the world but behind his brutality there’s a glimmer of humanity which makes him a complex villain worthy of a franchise like the “Planet of the Apes” and gives the otherwise throwaway human antagonists a true leader to get behind.
Now getting to the core of this film, “War” is by far one of the deepest movie experiences I’ve seen in some time, at least when it comes to big-budget franchises. Themes of religion, animal rights, human superiority and meddling, revenge, family, and the dangers of power are all present in this film and, frankly, they’re all presented in a smooth and stylish package that drives home every point this story has to make without being too heavy handed or overbearing. It’s easy to route against the humans and cheer on Caesar, but it’s also easy to see where humanity is coming from to some extent. While the film is a bit slow in its buildup, there’s always something to appreciate and to think about as almost every previous theme from this reboot franchise comes together with newer concepts to drive home everything this series stands for in one fell swoop.
One of my favorite aspects of the film is Caesar’s continued character arc as an ape who has preached nonviolence against other apes but has to come to grips with his own dark side as he spends much of the movie trying to avoid the same destructive fate as his friend-turned-enemy Koba from the previous film. This is a conflicted Caesar and one that Andy Serkis once again does a magnificent job bringing to life as we see how the years sense his time as a human pet have allowed Caesar to evolve and, in some ways, understand for himself just how cruel the world can be and how his quest for vengeance not only failed to bring him peace, but put his own kind in danger. It makes for a fitting and deserving conclusion to one of the greatest character arcs of the past ten years, bringing Caesar’s tale full circle and providing much needed closure for the ape leader. He’s not perfect. In fact he’s greatly flawed, and we see him try to live up to not only his own expectations, but the expectations set on him by everyone he has come in contact with to this point, human or ape. He might be an animal, but you can relate to him and feel for him making him the most human character of all in this concluding three-qual.
Finally lets talks about visuals and the score. I don’t often comment on the score of a film unless its truly memorable and here it really hits every mark. Every scene is captured perfectly by the tone and boom of the music, from the overture to the crescendo to the magnificent end of each piece. There were points in the film where the scenery and the score alone had me mesmerized, with no action or words needed for me to completely lose myself in the scene. Combine this with spectacular action set pieces and some pungent emotional moments that are sure to leave a mark on you if you’ve followed this story from start to finish and you have what is truly a complete package, in case that point wasn’t already made clear.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” is, to put it lightly, a magnificent film of deserving blockbuster caliber. The story concludes Caesar’s journey, provides closure for an audience who followed the tale through the first two projects, and even provides a back-story for the speechless humans that littered the original “Planet of the Apes” universe providing some amazing world building to top off everything else I’ve commented on here. At times it’s a fun and exciting adventure and war epic and at other times it’s a thought-provoking look at not only humanity, but also the demons that lie within all intelligent beings regardless of species. Altogether it adds up to one of the greatest third-films in any franchise that I can remember and is truly a cinematic experience to behold if you get the chance.