OnScreen Review: 'War for the Planet of the Apes'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Perhaps inexplicably, the prequel films to the Planet of the Apes have become one of the best franchises in Hollywood this decade. Given the unimpressive remake by Tim Burton in 2001, interest in the property did not seem that high, and news of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was met with a certain bit of skepticism and hesitation by people, myself included. When it turned out to actually be good, it was a pleasant surprise. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes seemed to be tempting fate, but even that was good. And now with War for the Planet of the Apes, they have successfully completed a trilogy, a rare feat in Hollywood.

The film picks up a few years after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his clan living deep in the forests trying to hide from a military force that is searching for them, led by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson). The Colonel’s soldiers finally locate Caesar’s group, but are defeated. Caesar, wanting a world where apes and humans can co-exist, releases the survivors with a message for the Colonel to just leave the apes the forest and there will be peace. Caesar’s plans to lead his clan to a new home across the desert are thrown into chaos when The Colonel and his men assault them the night before they plan to leave, resulting in casualties and tragedy that hits close to home for Caesar. Caesar leaves his clan to take out The Colonel, vowing revenge, with Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). Along the way, they encounter a human child who cannot speak (Amiah Miller), and a chimp named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) who helps them on their journey.

Director Matt Reeves, who directed the previous Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, returns to direct this one as well. Where Dawn drew some inspiration from Shakespearean tales of kings, War has its own inspirations, including The Great Escape, The Ten Commandments, Apocalypse Now, and The Bridge on the River Kwai just to name a few. It’s a strong, complex story. It mainly centers on how the need for revenge comes into conflict with being a leader for Caesar. Essentially, the apes end up in the middle of a human conflict that is on the brink of happening.  It’s a multi-sided conflict. The Colonel is a character that would be easy to just have be an over the top Colonel Kurtz, in some ways, there are suggestions that the Colonel has lost his mind similar to Kurtz, but when given the opportunity to explain his actions, it is clear that he has a true purpose and reason for doing what he is doing, even if the audience may not sympathize with his actions.

Where the sympathies of the audience lie may, in fact, be this films truest strength and achievement. Not only is the viewer supposed to side with the apes in this film and against the human beings, it actually does it in a convincing and compelling way. The Colonel is essentially fighting against the extinction of the human race as we know it, due to a theorized mutation in the Simian Flu. After seeing the Colonel in one light for half the film, it showed a level of nuance to the character that is rare for summer blockbusters. Even so, by the end of his explanation, I found myself saying, “Well, we had a good run.” It’s impressive narrative maneuvering that Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback are able to so effectively get us rooting against our own kind, so to speak.

It helps that the film is a technical marvel. The CGI of this film is completely seamless when it comes to Caesar and the rest of the apes. Several times during the film I actually shook my head and was amazed at how life-like these characters were. There is no uncanny valley with these apes. It’s amazing. Of course, the technical brilliance of these CGI apes requires actors in these roles that are equal to the task, and Andy Serkis again gives another amazing CGI performance. At this point, it is somewhat ridiculous that Serkis has never been nominated for any significant awards for his CGI work. Even though his face is covered by CGI, the man is still acting, and that acting informs the CGI we see on screen. I can picture a time maybe twenty years in the future where Serkis is given a lifetime achievement award for his body of work, because what he has done is impressive. Caesar is a powerful and emotional performance by a fine actor.

There’s an emotional weight to this film that is uncharacteristic of a summer blockbuster. The always terrific Michael Giacchino lends his talents to the music of the film, and his score helps to enhance the emotional heft of the film without ever being intrusive or overbearing. Being an unofficial conclusion of a story, even though the studio has plans for future films to continue the story, there are a few losses that really hit home. But there are also emotional connections between characters that really resonate. Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape is a character they stumble across who has been hiding in seclusion by himself for years and is clearly not all there mentally. There is also the complexity of having some apes that choose to work for the humans against Caesar, former followers of Koba from Dawn who fear reprisal from Caesar and so are aiding the enemy. The visuals of these apes working as grunts for the human soldiers, being called “Donkeys” (after Donkey Kong) was just that extra layer that is rare for a summer blockbuster. Caesar and his group form a bond with the girl that they encounter. If there was one thing that I thought the film was not entirely clear on, though, it was whether the mutation of the Simian Flu represented a de-evolution of human beings or just the loss of the capacity for speech.  That bit of information either makes the girl a mute that can comprehend or essentially a pet, which is a weird.

War for the Planet of the Apes is the rare capstone to a trilogy that does not suffer from the problems that plague so many third films in a trilogy after two great entries. It is a poignant story rooted in personal loss and grief and the desire for revenge; it puts the characters in tough circumstances and sees them through in a way that is not always easy to see when thinks are at their most dire for Caesar and the others.  It a fine conclusion for a trilogy that signals an end for this chapter and leaves open the door for a new story to be told in this universe.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars