The Planet of the Apes series has always been political. That was true even of the 1968 original—as beloved for its searing cultural commentary as it is for the campy fun and iconic twist ending. However, the most recent trilogy has proven to be surprisingly insightful even by Apes standards, and this concluding chapter War for the Planet of the Apes is easily the most thoughtful entry since the 70s. Somehow, a blockbuster that is the second sequel to a remake of a prequel to an almost 50-year-old movie might just be the most insightful film about contemporary times on screens today. Don’t believe the trailers (or even the title) that promise endless ape/human warfare. There’s actually comparatively little action here relative to the last Apes flick.
Instead what director/co-writer Matt Reeves has crafted is a potent exploration of how bigotry, hatred, and violence are the most vile and damaging elements of humanity that will likely lead to our downfall. That he does so in a movie about talking CGI apes who ride horses and fire guns that’s also loosely connected to a Charlton Heston classic is something of a miracle. Anyone who thinks it’s impossible to create intelligent and personal stories for the summer blockbuster marketplace need only see War for the Planet of the Apes to be proven wrong. Hopefully this threequel is successful. Not to extend the franchise further, but to encourage more studios and filmmakers to take risks with tentpole properties. It shouldn’t have been possible for the ninth Planet Of The Apes movie to be the potently cynical critique of hate that we so desperately need right now. Yet here we are. Donald Trump is the president of the United States and War for the Planet of the Apes just might be a zeitgeist-capturing masterpiece. What a weird time to be alive.
War for the Planet of the Apes finds Caesar (Andy Serkis) in an even more exhausted and exacerbated state than he was at the end of the last movie. The war between apes and humans keeps going and while the apes are winning, the constant death and violence has taken a toll on the leader. When a new human general (Woody Harrelson) leads an assassination attack that robs Caesar of some of his closest associates, the leader of the apes decides to head out to end the fight once and for all in an act of revenge. A few apes join him and on the journey Caesar gets even angrier and lonelier than before, plagued with visions of his former ape foe Koba and feeling like he’s becoming more like that rage-filled beast every day. It’s a journey into the soul that only gets worse once Caesar meets Harrelson’s psychotic Col. Kurtz-esque madman. Woody spouts out nasty philosophies that represent the worst of human nature, obsesses over building a wall, all the while convinced that this must end in bloodshed. Harrelson’s character quickly dabbles in some of the worst atrocities in the history of humanity and somewhere along the way the audience starts to wonder if humans losing this war is such a bad idea after all.
There are some big ol’ impressive action sequences within War for the Planet of the Apes, but nothing near the apes-on-horseback blowout that wrapped up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The title is kind of a misdirect. This war isn’t about guns and battles; it’s a war of the soul and a condemnation of all of the worst aspects of human history. Director/co-writer Matt Reeves leans hard into the socio-political allegory at the heart of the series to deliver a thoroughly cynical vision of mankind that feels depressingly timely. That it all fits into a brilliant conclusion to this wonderful new Planet of the Apes trilogy is both a minor miracle and wholly appropriate. This haunting blockbuster driven by dread and unsettling atmosphere is everything the Apes series has ever striven to be and one that actually warrants being taken seriously. There’s a lot to chew on and consider, even within a special effects driven entertainment machine.
The effects are somehow even more impressive than the groundbreaking work in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Andy Serkis’ Caesar no longer feels like a just a stunning technical achievement, but a full-blooded character driven more by angst and personality than pixels. It’s an extraordinary cap to Serkis’ three-movie arc that just might wreck the stigma against awarding trophies to motion capture performances—he’s just that good. Woody Harrelson proves to be a strong sparring partner in this blockbuster that often feels more like a character-driven two-hander. He’s threatening and frightening, yet also pathetic. The stunt casting was rather inspired because while Harrelson is intimidating, he feels somewhat out of place. This is no grand leader, but a sad man thrust into power that is letting all of his worst impulses control him in desperation. There are other amusing characters like Steve Zahn’s strange talking ape comic relief that never quite understands the gravity of his situation, Amiah Miller’s important silent young girl, and Karin Konoval’s latest and greatest performance as the thoughtful orangutan Maurice. The images in the film might be stunning, but it’s the human performances that give them weight beyond the bitrate.
As dark and as cynical of a film as War for the Planet of the Apes often feels, there is some surprising hope baked into Matt Reeves’ vision. We may see the worst humanity can offer, but we also see glimmers of the compassion and empathy that defines us at out best (mostly embodied in Miller’s mysterious character). The film is not exactly a heart-warming romp, yet it is written in a thoughtful enough manner to avoid getting lost in doom and gloom. This might be the best of the current Planet of the Apes series and one of the finest entries in the whole franchise. If it all ends here, it’s an appropriate note to go out on and a perfect time to release it. Matt Reeves has done so much good with a franchise that many considered dead that it should give even the most defeated comic book fan some hope for his upcoming Bat-fleck flick. If he can do this with War for the Planet of the Apes, he just might be the guy to save Batman from the hangover of Christopher Nolan leaving the franchise. That would be a miracle, but since he already pulled off two miracle movies in the Apes world, it’s not impossible to imagine he’ll do the same with good ol’ Batman. Bring it on.