Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Amiah Miller, Steve Zahn, Karin Konival and Toby Kebell
Running Time: 2 Hrs, 20 Mins
I’ve been a fan of the new Planet of the Apes trilogy ever since it dropped back in 2011. I found the entertaining blend of smart science fiction and stylish action crafted around a compelling story a welcome diversion from the regular, mindless summer movie fare. The twist that it was the Apes who started the war for morally dubious reasons and not Humanity, despite everything the movies showed us about human arrogance and prejudice, was a nice little storytelling twist. I had high hopes that War For The Planet of the Apes, the third and final film, could continue to avoid summer mindlessness.
While it did, I’m left wondering if it is a victim of its own success.
It’s been 15 years since the simian flu nearly wiped out humankind, allowing a new breed of super ape to fill the vacuum humanity left behind. Following the actions of the vengeful Koba against a settlement of human survivors, Ceasar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe take shelter in the forest from the human army seeking to destroy them. The two sides have settled into a wary stalemate until betrayal strikes Ceasar and convinces him his tribe are no longer safe in their trees.
While the tribe flees the forest in search of a new home, Ceasar and a handful of followers seek vengeance on The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a human supremacy fanatic who dreams of killing every ape on the planet. Along the way the group discovers a human child (Amiah Miller) who carries a new strain of the simian flu, one that robs the victim of their speech and renders them intellectually inert. They also come across “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), a refugee from a zoo who has been living in isolation since his escape and taught himself how to talk. The motley crew soon find themselves facing an unimaginable battle that threatens all of Apekind.
If you’re looking for an action movie with wall-to-wall explosions and battle scenes, War For the Planet of The Apes isn’t it. There’s a solid action beat at the beginning and another one at the end with two hours of story and character development sandwiched in between. This movie is one part escape movie and one part redemption story that confronts some pretty heavy themes head on. It takes an unflinching look at the nature of violence, the inherent human potential for brutality and the impossibility of peace.
Ceasar clings to the idea that Apes only kill to survive even while he faces an army that includes traitors who have willingly become slaves, slaughtering fellow Apes. The Colonel meanwhile, can be summed up by one poignant line. “The irony is we created you,” he says while discussing the Ape civilization. “And nature’s been punishing us ever since.” He believes he’s a messiah who was purified through murder and violence for the Holy Mission of wiping out the Apes in order to protect the remains of Humankind. The contrast between the two reveals more about their characters than their actual actions.
As a related side note, if you’re also looking for a movie to reaffirm your faith in the human race, you’re also going to want to skip this one. Previous films have been careful to juxtapose human cruelty and violence with some who chose understanding and tolerance. But those days are long gone and outside of the flu-afflicted Nova (a nice little nod to the 70’s Apes movies), humans are now murder hungry savages interested only in self-preservation through carnage. You don’t exactly feel bad when scores of them are cut down.
It’s rare to find a movie this introspective amid the likes of Transformers and Will Farrell comedies.
I’m constantly amazed at how these movies can bring such vibrant, emotive characters to life through motion capture technology. If Andy Serkis doesn’t at least get an Oscar nod for his portrayal of Caesar next February, someone needs to be fired. Woody Harrelson does an almost frightening job as The Colonel, a man who abandoned the better angels of his nature a long time ago. Steve Zahn gets a pat on the back for his comedic presence as the off kilter Bad Ape and Matt Reeves deserves a healthy does of credit for keeping a narrative so reliant on CGI coherent and moving forward. It gives me renewed (yet cautious) hope for the upcoming Batman standalone film he’s been tapped to direct.
Is War a fitting conclusion for this franchise? That depends on whether or not you’re a fan. The story is well crafted but this is perhaps the most muted movie so far this summer, preferring storytelling substance and philosophical examination to repetitive explosions. And while I enjoyed it, a few more action scenes couldn’t have hurt, especially during summer movie season. It pulls at just enough heartstrings to be emotionally satisfying for franchise fans, but may not have the same effect on casual moviegoers looking for an escape.
In short its storytelling success may be its own worst enemy.
At the end of the day, if you are a fan of the first two films definitely check this one out. Seeing Ceaser’s story come full circle, evolving from the nervous lab monkey in the first one to a would be savior and potential world conqueror is a nice cinematic achievement. But if you’re looking for a light, easy escape, maybe give this a pass and wait for it on streaming. After all, there’s a reason you typically don’t see smart, serious movies during summer.