Somebody get Andy Serkis an Oscar, stat. And possibly Woody Harrelson. Then get ready to think deep thoughts about what it means to be human, to feel all the strong feelings you can think of, and to watch one hell of a summer action movie.
War for the Planet of the Apes is one of the few third films in a trilogy that in no way disappoints. It is, in some ways, the best of the three. It’s the strange summer blockbuster that doesn’t skimp on the action but still manages to leave us deeply pondering our own existence.
The new film ends only a few years after the close of the last film. Caesar (Serkis as the masterful CGI-mocap ape creation) is considering leading his people out of their home in the woods north of San Francisco to a new promised land. (They lay on the Moses symbolism pretty heavily). far away from the humans whose soldiers continue to lead attacks against them.
Their leader is The Colonel (Harrelson) whose soldiers form a squad (really more of a cult) called Alpha-Omega. Their attacks on the apes are not without purpose, as we learn (slowly, deliberately) the Colonel’s tragic backstory and why they believe they are fighting for their lives. As part of this, they end up enslaving most of Caesar’s people and force them to build a giant wall around their base, setting up a final act that is mostly a prison break.
There is a battle of wills between Caesar and The Colonel, and an internal ethical struggle they both face on the brink of extinction. How far will I go? To see revenge? To protect my people? They are perfect foils for one another and especially amazing performances given that Harrelson and Serkis are playing off each other with one of them in a mocap suit.
But one of the best parts of the film is one of the new characters– a former zoo chimp who calls himself Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) who dresses in human clothes and adds very needed comic relief to a very otherwise heavy, dense narrative.
And for those who missed the first two films? Everything you need to know is told in a couple of title cards at the opening. You’d be fine walking into this completely unaware of any of the other films — a true rarity for a franchise film such as this.
Perhaps even more spectacular, there are numerous nods, references, homages, and Easter Eggs to the other films in the series. Fans will get payoff in ways the rest of the audience won’t quite grasp, but it never feels like fanservice or like anyone is left out.
In short– it’s the perfect film no matter how familiar you are with the Apes universe.
Speaking of homages, they are almost too numerous to mention. But needless to say that the fact that Harrelson is playing a Colonel should not be lost on anyone, as the second half of the film could basically be described as Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now running the prison camp in The Great Escape. Having mentioned the heavy Moses symbolism, this also draws heavily from both the Old Testament story and The Ten Commandments as there is a definite Charlton Heston vs. Yul Brenner level of gravitas in the interplay between our two lead characters.
There is also a surprising amount of prescient social commentary in the film. The fact that the humans are trying to build a wall should not be lost on anyone and may, perhaps, date the film a little bit. The Colonel plays the best on-screen fascist in a big budget Hollywood film since Domhnall Gleeson yelled at stormtroopers in The Force Awakens. So the commentary hits home, if a bit on the nose. But if you take it as a human instinct to desperately and futilely build walls in order to protect ourselves from forces beyond our control, the commentary lands a little more softly.
But, regardless of politics, it should inspire all of us to consider how desperation and grief lead us to make decisions opposed to our morals.
It bears considering, however, in a world filled with CGI apes that the film still can’t manage to pass the Bechdel Test. One can even bring the claim that female characters are “refrigerator-ed” to provide reason for the male characters to act. This was a trap the second apes film managed to avoid with stellar performances by Judy Greer and Keri Russell that did not transfer over to this final chapter. A lone ray of hope here is the continued stellar work by Karin Konoval as Maurice the orangutan, who continues to act as Caesar’s conscience. While tropey (and it should be mentioned Maurice is apparently canonically male, which is why the film fails Bechdel) her performance here is so excellent that it deserves praise among of cast of apes who all do amazing work. Amiah Miller also puts in a great performance as the mute human Nova, adopted by Caesar. But unfortunately those do nothing for the gender politics of the film. Even in a post-apocalyptic future, both and ape and human society remains rigidly patriarchal. *Sigh*
Oh, and did I mention that are some great action scenes with giant explosions? The film begins with an assault on Caesar’s camp, and ends with a climactic battle between opposing forces. While the Apes franchise is never trying to be The Fast and Furious, there’s enough action in here to be enjoyable.
Some may complain the 142 minute runtime is too long, it’s hard to say what deserved to be cut. A great movie can never be too long, and a bad one can never be over too quickly.
It’s worth noting that director and co-screenwriter Matt Reeves will next tackle Batman, taking over directing duties after Ben Affleck decided starring in and directing the film would be too much. Given Reeves’s work on the Apes film and his study of nuance and character, ability to weave action and dark characterization, The Bat should be in good hands.
As amazing as Spider-Man: Homecoming and Baby Driver have been, this, by the width of a chimp’s hair, is the best movie currently in theaters.
4.5 stars out of 5