Matt Reeves is a director who seems to have found his true calling refashioning the work of others. He remade the Swedish film Let the Right One In and improved it in several areas, though having Richard Jenkins and Chloe Grace Mortiz and a complete lack of CGI cats certainly helps. Then he inherited the new Apes franchise with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the fledgling franchise didn’t miss a beat. I’ve been pleasantly surprised about these damn dirty apes ever since the 2011 prequel kicked things off. Reeves took control of the franchise and deepened it, following a very non-Hollywood playbook that embraced subtleties, patience, and quiet moments. It had its crazy apes action but it was a movie in service to its characters first and foremost. Reeves, serving as co-writer once more with Mark Bomback, brings the franchise to its natural and thrilling conclusion. War for the Planet of the Apes is a blockbuster with soul.
It’s been fifteen years since the outbreak of the devastating Simian Flu. Mankind is dwindling and falling victim to a secondary virus as well. There are only pockets of humans left and small militias taking the fight to the super-intelligent apes. Caesar (Andy Serkis once more in mo-cap) and his followers have taken refuge near a waterfall. The ape community is ambushed by soldiers led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). With their home exposed, Caesar splits up the remaining numbers and sends them out to find a new shelter. He is determined to seek out the Colonel for vengeance. Eventually, the other apes are captured and put into a slave labor camp and Caesar and company must rescue them and flee mankind’s last gasp at staying atop the food chain.
This may be one of the bleakest blockbusters in recent memory, especially when you consider that you’ll be actively cheering for the relative extinction of mankind by the end credits. Human beings are on the brink of extinction and this has drawn out the worst fight-or-flight instincts in the remaining numbers. This is about a final fight for survival on a visceral, us versus them level, and after two movies it should be abundantly clear what direction this is all heading. Even as humankind is doing a terrific job of wiping itself off the planet, humans still present a clear threat to the remaining apes. The second film explored how a working trust was improbable and unfathomable to many on both sides of the conflict because of the injustices. That’s pretty heady for a talking ape summer blockbuster. War closes the series with an even bigger and bleaker scenario, as humanity is entering the hospice phase of its social dominance. Roger Ebert referred to the movie theater as an empathy machine, and it’s amazing how far you will empathize with non-human characters. You will feel their triumphs, setbacks, loss, and anger, and you will root for the demise of mankind. We had a good run but maybe it’s time for a different species to become the caretakers of dear Mother Earth.
This is a final film that makes allusions to some of the darkest aspects of human history including, but not limited to, slavery and the Holocaust. It doesn’t traffic in black-and-white moral absolutes. There is good in some humans, several of whom were thrown into military service unprepared, under-trained, and simply existentially lost. There are apes that have made the calculation that it’s better to work with the humans than be killed. That’s right, there are collaborationist apes, and Reeves doesn’t look down on them. They too are allowed complexity and nuance and even the possibility of redemption. No one, man or ape, is beyond the capacity for compassion. You strongly feel their shame brought from moral compromises. It’s hard not to think about real-life analogues like the Jewish police that chose to work at the behest of their Nazi oppressors. They’re all still victims.
There is great suffering and vengeance on display with War, and it’s all too easy for characters to justify it on a literal specist argument (“Apes aren’t people, and they would have done the same to you”). Caesar is trying his best to manage a fragile co-existence, though this becomes untenable with every new attack. It’s a cycle of violence that only knows recriminations and fear. This struggle is personalized for Caesar as he wrestles with his own selfish, self-destructive impulses to seek out vengeance at the potential cost of the greater good for apekind. Caesar is still haunted by the ghost of Koba (Toby Kebbel, in a welcomed albeit brief appearance), the ape he slew in the previous film. Koba could not let go of the hatred he carried for mankind for their myriad abuses. It consumed him at great cost. Caesar is battling these same impulses but is self-aware about his responsibilities as the leader of his people, but even that might not be enough to dissuade him. To have that kind of emotional conflict within a CGI animal who happens to be the protagonist in a major Hollywood production is simply remarkable.
I don’t want to scare people away. War for the Planet of the Apes is still a very entertaining and gripping movie that can easily warrant stuffing your face full of popcorn. It’s also a blockbuster with tremendous weight. At a steep 140 minutes long, I still could have used even more of this movie. Reeves displays an uncommon sense of patience for a blockbuster filmmaker given a big studio’s checkbook. A majority of this movie is silent and this doesn’t panic Reeves. The director tells his story in a visually appealing and accessible way that doesn’t scrimp on characterization and depth. For long stretches, the only communication on screen is ape sign language (small quibble: the apes too often fail to look at one another when they do this). There’s a lingering hush over much of the film, allowing the audience to immerse themselves fully. When the action does heat up, the sounds and music matter more. The solemn silences, hunting parties, and tense standoffs should remind people of Westerns and prisoner-of-war movies. This is the second big-budget 2017 movie making direct Vietnam parallels concerning a man-vs-apes conflict. The prison escape structure of the second half is immediately compelling and just as well developed as what came before. The multiple points needed for an elaborate escape are presented one-by-one and organically. The mini-goals and geography are clear at all times. It leads to an all-out assault climax that is thrilling on multiple levels but also deeply satisfying because of the extensive legwork.
Serkis (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) has been the beating heart of this franchise and his work as Casaer has been a monumental achievement in the advancement of special effects (the series has never won an Oscar for its VFX). Caesar is a fully formed character with relatable flaws and doubts, and thanks to the wizards at Weta, you can see the nuances flash across his face. Serkis brings an impressive range of emotions to a non-human character that’s piercingly silent often. It’s a performance that deserves shared credit to the animators and to Serkis, who is deserving once again of awards consideration that I know will unfairly never come. Harrelson (Now You See Me 2) is definitely evoking a Colonel Kurtz homage, a man given over to the darkness. I appreciated that his character has a credible back-story that informs his actions. He’s not simply a maniacal madman. He respects Caesar and the apes but views life as a zero-sum game, which makes genocide an appealing last-ditch option. The pleasant surprise among the cast is Steve Zahn (Captain Fantastic) who plays Bad Ape. It’s a character that seems prone to comic relief non-sequiturs, but he’s scarred from his own survival experiences. This is an ape still going through PTSD and that presents even the comedic with a twinge of tragedy. The unseen actors behind their mo-cap performances breathe startling life into the numerous non-human characters, bringing unparalleled realism to this sci-fi realm.
As the conclusion to the Apes prequel trilogy, you will also experience plenty of powerful emotions. I full-on cried twice and teared up about four other separate occasions. I cannot even remember another major summer tentpole that triggered that kind of emotional response (maybe a Pixar title or two). We’ve traveled with Caesar and several of these apes for three movies and six years. We’re emotionally invested. I knew I was going to lose it if anything happened to the orangutan, Maurice (I won’t confirm his fate). The community and empathy we’ve shared with these characters for three movies comes to a gratifying conclusion that feels appropriate, sizeable, and aching with potential for further adventures in this new and exciting world.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a movie so rewarding, so engaging, that you walk away angry that other Hollywood blockbusters can’t be this good or aren’t even trying to be. It’s emotionally rich and resonant, hitting you in the heart just as often as it quickens your pulse. Because of the investment in the characters, and their ongoing progression, we genuinely care about what happens like few blockbusters. The characters don’t take a backseat to the plot mechanics. Serkis and his amazing cast of mo-cap performers have delivered performances that rival live-action actors. There are clever nods to the original series that fans will enjoy but this Apes franchise has been its own beast from the beginning. This is a thoughtful, reflective, and contemplative film that fits well for such a thoughtful and contemplative series, and yet it still knows how to deliver stupendous sci-fi action (our lives are just that much more complete having watched an ape fire dual machine guns while riding a horse). I would declare Dawn as the best action of the trilogy, but I think War is the best movie because of how much everything matters and finishes. I think once the initial dust settles, it’s time to start thinking about this new Apes trilogy place among the all-time great movie trilogies. It’s been consistently enthralling from the beginning and has treated its animal cast as equally worthy of the greatest stories movies can deliver. War for the Planet of the Apes is powerful proof of what blockbuster filmmaking is capable of offering at its absolute finest.
Nate’s Grade: A