Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes”

Woody Harrelson stars in Twentieth Century Fox's "War for the Planet of the Apes."

by Michael Henley

These days, Hollywood can show us pretty much anything. A planet under siege by robots, superheroes of all shapes and sizes, dead actors being brought back to temporary life, even a photorealistic ape with persuasive human expressions riding on horseback. What’s far more rare, these days, is for a Hollywood product to absorb us not just with the strength of its spectacle but with the power of its ideas. We may get staggering wonders every week at the multiplex—especially during the summertime—but intelligence, beauty, grace and grandeur are an endangered species, especially when you’re talking about huge $200 million-dollar tentpole blockbusters. There’s no room for depth on a canvas that big.

All the more reason why War for the Planet of the Apes, the new film by Matt Reeves, is extraordinary. This is a big-budget summer movie with ideas and vision. It is first and foremost an absorbing, hugely emotional tale, set across a desolate and expansive backdrop that recalls the widescreen epics of Lean, Ford, and even Peckinpah. And it is also a tight and gripping character drama about beings making impossible, existential choices that inform their nature and challenge their very souls. It is quiet and thoughtful and even when it becomes an action-fest it does it with skill and smarts. It is an evocation of a bleak and chilly apocalyptic tone, but one that still manages to sneak in appropriately balanced degrees of humor and beauty. And then, on top of that, it is a thunderous spectacle of technical wizardry and craftsmanship—practically every shot is fabricated one way or the other—all in ultimate service of superb storytelling. The word “epic” gets thrown around a lot these days, but this is the kind of thing the word was invented for.

And all the more stunning is how we got here. The original Planet of the Apes series from the 1960s is a seminal science fiction work, biting and nasty and full of statement, but multiple TV series and lunchboxes and parodies kind of defanged the whole enterprise and shuttled it to franchise-town. Then there was the 2001 remake from Tim Burton—name whatever cause you might be in favor of; it didn’t help it. But 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt, breathed new CGI life into the series, anchored by an incredible motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis as the chimp-turned-messianic-leader Caesar. 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matt Reeves, was even better—a Shakespearean and poetic tragedy about good people (one of them Serkis’ Caesar) on opposing sides being pulled into inevitable conflict by the faults and schemes of weak men. Now here is War, again directed by Reeves, bringing everything to a fiery and poignant crescendo that would have made studio suits apoplectic, were it not for the fact that this is a sci-fi movie about talking apes, so what really could it possibly be saying? (Every sci-fi fan knows the true answer to this. In short: a lot.)

The story, picking up directly from the aftermath of Dawn (but nicely reminding us of what happened in a pretitle text), owes a lot to westerns and revenge fables—Caesar and his commune, besieged by American soldiers determined to destroy the ape population, suffer such cruel heartbreak in an early sequence (impeccably staged by Reeves), that Caesar and a small company go on the road, on horseback, across desolate beaches through ragged encampments and down snowy mountains, to seek justice. Throughout, Caesar is doubly haunted–first, by the fact that this has all the makings of a suicide mission, and second by the memory of Koba (Toby Kebbell), whom Caesar vanquished in the last movie only by sacrificing precious principles. The implication, never fully stated because it does not need to be, is that there are more to follow.

Along the way they pick up a pair of stragglers. The first is a former zoo animal named Bad Ape (a brilliant Steve Zahn), who took his moniker (and all the implied internalized horror) from the workers who shouted at him. Bad Ape provides a drop of humor, but never at the expense of his character’s pain, or the tone of the movie. The second passenger is a speechless little girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) who has hugely expressive young eyes and her condition may hold a secret driving some of the disintegrating human forces’ newfound cruelty. How these two stowaways end up influencing the main story is revealed during moments of touching, beautiful power that left me speechless.

The rest of the humans, however, are represented when Woody Harrelson finally shows up extensively as a crazed army colonel who holds his underlings in a cultish thrall and he reminds us, more than a little, of Brando’s Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. He’s a man who sees within himself glorious purpose, killing his own people who are carrying a mutated form of the supervirus that wiped most of humanity. And he has captured scores of apes as slave labor in a concentration camp to build a wall (ahem). And there’s a handful of apes who have collaborated with the humans (dubbed “donkeys” by their abusive human wards), working with them under the empty promise that they will be spared from the oncoming genocide. How this culminates in both a thrilling prison movie and an epic war scene I will leave for you to discover.

The reference points and social commentary scattered throughout here are not subtle, extending all the way from historical truths about dying civilizations, American slavery, The Holocaust, and even contemporary politics (although the Apocalypse Now references eventually wear out their welcome). This has always been the bread and butter of the Apes movies in the 60’s, which scored sly points against nuclear war, the fragility of civilization and its precious institutions, anti-science fanatics and eventually dived full-force into trenchant comment on race relations as the civil rights movement stretched on. This, of course, is what great science fiction all the time has the perspective and ability (and occasionally the will) to do, and it’s so nice to see, as this trilogy concludes, that the Apes legacy has been picked up so thoughtfully and knowingly.

Carrying the series on his back has been Serkis as Caesar, and once again he gives a commanding performance. He is grayer here, older, more hard-bitten. In effect, his face has the impassive look of a Clint Eastwood. But Serkis is never not comprehensively emotive, and Reeves’ camera gets up close and personal to Caesar and his circle of confidants (including the good-hearted orangutan Maurice, who at times serves as Caesar’s conscience). The film captures every ounce of pain, thought, anger and hopelessness to be traced on the faces of it stars. It lets the emotions linger. The movie treats the ape characters with all the weight and presence that it would real actors, and the movie, like its predecessors, is audacious in the way it conveys so much of its beats through glances, looks and stares. The effects artists pour their souls into telling the story, and they dare you not to be drawn in. But they don’t ask you to be impressed.

But we are, all the same, because this is a marvelously-crafted piece of work. And to say it brings Caesar’s story to a conclusion might sound like a spoiler, but it’s really not—it just gives you a taste of the closure and power this final chapter brings to a story that is about way, way, way more than superintelligent monkeys. These movies will be celebrated and remembered for a long, long time. And they should be.

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Matt Reeves. Screenplay by Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves. Based on characters created by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver. Produced by Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver. Music by Michael Giacchino. Photographed by Michael Seresin. Edited by William Hoy, Stan Salfas. Production designed by James Chinlund. Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite.