It never does the easy thing. War for the Planet of the Apes is at all times making the hard, brave decisions. Acting as the cap to a prodigious and surprising trilogy, it could have succumb to any number of pitfalls as many summer blockbusters do. Instead, it chooses to say something brilliant, new, and grimly satisfying.
In the hands of director/co-writer Matt Reeves, War is a display of masterful dichotomy. Taking place some indeterminate number of years following Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his clan is holed up squarely within the Muir Woods, and they would be happily surviving if not for a ruthless military leader known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). The US military has been all but wiped out following the fatal Simian Flu, putting humanity further at odds than before.
Perhaps the most incredible part of this movie is that despite the title and the setup, there is little physical war actually happening. The enrapturing 140 minutes instead focuses on the conflict within Caesar himself as he is forced to clean up with Koba of Dawn started. It’s a premise that falls neatly within the grander trilogy’s arc of the character, going from existing to feeling to wanting. But it also presents an unexpected and tremendous storytelling opportunity.
Before we ever even see Caesar, we see his effect on his people. They bow to him, revere him, cherish his presence. It’s a clear evocation of messianic imagery, which is earned from the past two movies but also sets up clear stakes for this one on its own. With this opening, our regard for him is elevated to their level. He is, above all else, a savior.
It then makes his thread in this film all the more impactful, especially when juxtaposed with the Colonel. The story and the cinematography purposefully puts them next to each other in biblical contexts. It’s very much a God versus Satan motif, bringing their alignment as close together as possible to force the audience to ask themselves just what makes them different, if anything at all.
Certain shots are expressly distinct in drawing these comparisons. The Colonel falsely sanctifying his troops, his troops using the ΑΩ callsign, apes being put to enslaved labor, and them searching for a new promised land. It transforms what would otherwise be a stock revenge tale into an affecting, strangely perverse odyssey of discovering the meaning of triumph. Granted, this means it isn’t strictly a retelling of any particular part of the Bible, but that doesn’t make it any less effective.
By attaching itself to such familiar themes of betrayal and oppression, the movie gets the chance to be far more complex. It avoids the simple fluff themes and shifts into more nuanced versions of their baser selves. That humanity is the real monster, for instance, is such a glaringly obvious one for this franchise, but it never does that. It instead chooses to stare headlong into the dark and consider what is value—what is worth.
It pokes at the notion of existing versus living, whether obligations are natural or manufactured, if thoughts are desires. And eventually the difference in ponderance and pride in these ideas are what drives humans and apes to their respective sides and their eventual ends. They even introduce an intermediary phase of the two, managing to contrast their differences even more by showing something more akin to either. It’s less good/evil and more modalities, each one struggling to be.
Nature conquers all is another deft dodge of the trite. The closest it gets is that nature doesn’t care about you or your choices. It has a balance to uphold, so it does just that, and the movie shows that by choosing to exercise restraint in this post-apocalyptic landscape. It could have easily gone the way of The Last of Us and drenched the world in foliage, but it would rather make deliberate and thoughtful determinations of just how the world proceeded to fall.
The film plays with this continually on a visual level, gifting us with conceptual and cinematographic dichotomies. Seeing an ape ride a horse while holding a shotgun, for example, is pretty damn incongruous, but seeing Caesar sift through a derelict shed in a waning sun, surrounded by filing cabinets and desks and papers and little fans—hallmarks of a human working condition—is even stronger. This gives us both great attachment and heightened consideration to the plight unfolding.
And that itself is noteworthy, seeing as how knowing the film is. In such a time where pride is seemingly the cause of the ongoing downfall of much of the world, the evocation of classic war epics like Platoon is as painful and poignant as it is riveting. And by using similarly defining touchstones such as taking back “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn) and militant pushes for racial purity, its commentary as timeless as it is modern.
A lot of credit goes to both Harrelson and Serkis. While every single ape on display is a powerhouse of simultaneous might and tenderness, somehow evoking great emotional range through grunts and sloppy sign language, it is these two substantial performances on which these hefty themes and threads hang. Harrelson alone is remarkable in his role, emoting a quelled but simmering pain from the get-go—long before we even understand why—while his overt intimidation looms tall over the story.
But not enough can be said about Serkis. While he has been praised before for his broad physical acting ability as Gollum and his more nuanced touches of Caesar’s humanity in Dawn, here he highlights his ability to simply feel. Even if you want to chalk up his heartbreaking stares or rageful glares to CGI after seeing this video, his ability to draw a deep and instinctive reaction from his voice work alone is tremendous. His blend of a dutiful physical performance and a raw emotional one should be talked about for years to come.
Of course, once the action kicks off, it really fucking kicks the fuck off. And it’s never gratuitous in the way most action films are. It’s an earned clash of heightened emotions—the war equivalent of when there are too many feelings in a musical and everyone starts singing. The climax is explosive and visceral, but each scene or specific gag has a reason and is never empty.
As the movie resolves, it feels painful in a lot of ways. It’s been a six-year battle to see Caesar through to the end of his story. And it’s not a strictly happy ending, but neither is it sad. There’s a measure of audacity you can feel as the credits roll, and it’s the same kind of bold ambition that kept you engaged for the preceding two hours. In a summer of amazing films, War for the Planet of the Apes puts up a good fight for the top.
Final Score: 9 out of 10