When Fox announced plans to revive this franchise with a new origin story about the Apes’ evolution, I was skeptical at best, like some of you reading this. The original Planet of the Apes movies were a staple of classic sci-fi, and though they could use an update of sorts, people weren’t entirely certain a reboot would work. There was a lot more trepidation after Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes reimagining did badly at the box office. So many Apes fans weren’t sure what to make of this new film series.
Fortunately, the first two films, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes turned out to be solid, high-quality sci-fi. Every aspect from the storytelling to the acting to the visual effects by WETA was well-handled. There was a distinct effort to explain the Apes’ rise and humanity’s fall in an intelligent fashion deviating from the theme of nuclear holocaust. Instead, we got a virus that creates a flu that kills humans but makes apes intelligent, and so there are lingering long-term tensions between the two species since the humans’ numbers are naturally dwindling. At the center of this has been Caesar (Andy Serkis), an ape who was trained and cared for immensely by a human but could not tolerate the cruelty shown toward his fellow simians. Eventually, he just wants a home where they can all thrive (including humans) but the events of the first two films show this may not be possible.
This new film starts up a couple years after the events of Dawn, in which last we saw, the humans who remained sent out a distress signal and an army of some sort was coming. We see soldiers attacking apes forest stronghold, with help of a gorilla named Red (Olsson) who was loyal to Koba, a very unsettled ape who betrayed Caesar’s desire for peace. Caesar’s forces win out however and he interrogates the soldiers, showing enough mercy to let them go. Afterward, his adult son Bight Eyes (Max-Lloyd Jones) returns with news of a section where the apes might go to live entirely away from all humans. However, a fateful meeting with a human soldier known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) sets Caesar on a new quest, leading him to discover new layers to the human ape war with consequences nobody could have foreseen.
Like I said earlier, Rise and Dawn were solid entries into the franchise but honestly, War is the best one of the three. In talking with a fellow reviewer, we came to realize this is one of the few trilogies that gets better with each film. It’s not that the first movie written by Rick Jaffa and Silver and directed by Rupert Wyatt was bad; far from it. But when director Matt Reeves took over, something about the quality went up a notch. His ability to create tension by using creative sound design really hooked me when he debuted with Cloverfield and continued on Let Me In. It’s an insight and talent that really has served him well on these last two Apes films, especially War. The use (and omission) of sound proves crucial, as we have a whole society of apes who use sign language.
Reeves also co-wrote this movie alongside Mark Bomback and it’s quite clear they have a serious affection for the original Planet of the Apes films. There are many influences presented throughout the scenery and screenplay which are fun to spot and speculate on. They aren’t unwilling to try new things though, such as the inclusion of two new characters who are both well-acted and well-written. One is a little mute girl (portrayed by Amiah Miller) who comes to find family strength among the apes. The other is Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a chimpanzee who is a total scene stealer as he tries to relate to Caesar’s group. Meanwhile, Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval) Rocket the chimpanzee (Terry Notary) and Luca the gorilla (Michael Adamthwaite) remain Caesar’s most faithful allies and it’s great to see their tight-knit dynamic in action.
Speaking of dynamics though, what eventually develops between Caesar and The Colonel is an excellent adversarial relationship between two rulers of their peoples. Their scenes set the stage for what is truly at stake for both species. The Colonel’s perspective is both a reasonable viewpoint in some respects as much as it is a descent into madness depicted via conversation alone, and it’s wonderful stuff to watch.
In the end, though, everything comes back to Caesar, his design and his portrayal. I’ve often believed Andy Serkis and the effects artists of WETA deserved special recognition for creating this character (and the other simians) so convincingly, much like they did with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Caesar’s design has evolved over the years and it shows here as the responsibilities of being a king have worn on him. He’s visibly older and battle weary, but resolute, loving, protective and fierce. He runs through a gamut of emotions and like so often in the prior films, gives us many reasons to care about his issues and fate. I couldn’t help but to wish Roddy McDowall of the original films were here to see this rendition of Caesar on screen and perhaps star alongside him in some capacity. I genuinely think he would be proud.
So as you might guess, as a film fan and as someone who enjoys the franchise overall, I really enjoyed War For The Planet of the Apes. Effects and visuals aside, if this trilogy were to replace the last three films after Beneath The Planet of the Apes, I would have no issue as this arc is told in a better fashion and builds to a great conclusion. The summer offerings of 2017 have been a mixed bag but this is definitely one of the strongest of the bunch and deserves your funds. I know Matt Reeves will now be directing the next Batman movie and I’ve gotten a little more faith in him from what I’ve seen here. Recommended.
Grade : A