8/10 It’s slightly different in context, but I’m not sure how smart it is in 2017 to open a movie on a U.S. soldier with “monkey killer” written on the back of his helmet.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” takes place 15 years after the simian flu outbreak that made apes around the world super intelligent but wiped out 90 percent of the human population. The apes live alone in the woods with their leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis), but remnants of the human military find their hideaway. The leader, Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), kills Caesar’s wife and first son in the attack. Consumed by grief and needing a diversion to evacuate his people to safety, Caesar tracks the colonel north, where he discovers an atrocity — a concentration camp of apes, organized by his quarry.
These extremely popular, mostly well-made “Planet of the Apes” prequel movies are renowned for their thoughtfulness, their melancholy pacing and Serkis’ terrific performances, and of the three of them, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is the most thoughtful, the most melancholy and offers Serkis’ most thorough performance. Hopefully, it will stand as a defining moment for the reboot franchise that I never thought lived up to the hype until now.
These movies have always had a distinct “Lord of the Rings” vibe to them, and that brings some problems with it. Tension in the scene is tied to the length of shots as much as quality, leading to exhausting films that can get a little flat at times. “War for the Planet of the Apes” is dramatically better shot than its predecessors, and in spite of a 140 minute runtime, none of the scenes feel like they need to be shaved.
The enhanced shot choices enable a startlingly quiet movie, in which the ability to speak is a major theme. Caesar can speak, but many apes are limited to sign language. On the other side, humans living with the simian flu virus have begun to lose their ability to speak along with other higher brain functions. Thematically, the line between man and beast becomes even blurrier, and mechanically it makes dialogue a difficult tool to pull out. Writer/director Matt Reeves, who returns from directing the last installment, has to find more creative — and much more engaging — ways to drive the plot, and the product is film that’s better to the core.
In addition to eliminating distracting elements, “War for the Planet of the Apes” offers a wonderful story to not be distracted from. It elegantly builds on the previous movies’ themes without making them required viewing.
In “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the staunchly pacifist Caesar faces off with Koba (Toby Kebbell), who wanted to retaliate against the nearby human settlement for his mistreatment at their hands before the outbreak. Koba could not let go of his hatred, and it destroyed him. But in “War of the Planet of the Apes,” Caesar finds himself in the same situation, unable or unwilling to forgive the colonel for killing his family, and the irony isn’t lost on him. Koba returns as a hallucination to taunt Caesar, and we are treated to an intricate performance by Serkis as a character who fundamentally disagrees with his own actions.
The external conflict evolves as well. In “Dawn,” Caesar’s apes faced off with a nearby human colony just trying to survive, a completely understandable conflict driven by past abuses and competition for resources. In “War,” Caesar faces humanity at its most unreasonable in the colonel. Obviously modeled off of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz — the film is littered with direct references to “Apocalypse Now,” and several other films — the colonel leads the alpha and omega regiment, which worships him as a god and begins morning maneuvers with the mantra, “We are the beginning and the end!” But privately, he’s buried in guilt and alcoholism and just as conflicted as Caesar is. Their final confrontation, in which they wrestle silently with themselves and each other, is worth the price of admission all on its own.
Graceful, nuanced, engaging and at times completely riveting, “War for the Planet of the Apes” does everything right. It even puts its comic relief character, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), to expert use. It’s being hailed as one of the strongest-ever conclusions to a film trilogy.
For more, check out Leopold Knopp’s movie blog at reelentropy.com.