Bleak. Harrowing. Griping. Heartbreaking. Hopeful. Words you don’t expect to describe the Matt Reeves co-written and directed War for the Planet of the Apes, the final film in the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy, are words that perfectly capture one of the best films released in 2017. War provides unexpected heartbreak as it channels the fury of war into a personal story of redemption, maintaining the character-focused storytelling that made Rise and Dawn immensely powerful experiences. Serving to both close the loop on the newest Planet trilogy and bring this series nearly full circle to the beginning of the 1968 original, War is infused with the DNA of cinematic classics like Seven Samurai, Spartacus, and Apocalypse Now and possesses a brutality unlike anything experienced in the prior two films.
Set seventeen years after the events of Rise, Caesar and his tribe of hyper-intelligent apes continue to seek a home of their own. In the present, seven years since the events of Dawn, they now face a methodical foe in the form of the relentless Colonel (Woody Harrelson), the leader of a military troupe intent on eradicating all of ape-kind. After surviving two dangerously close calls with the Colonel’s men, Caesar devises a plan to send his tribe away from their wooded home, using himself as a diversion to ensure the tribe’s safety. Unwilling to let their leader go alone, Rocket (Terry Notary), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and Maurice (Karin Konoval) join Caesar in taking the fight directly to the enemy. With Caesar exhausted from the weight of his conscience, burdened by the choices he’s made toward human and ape alike, what begins as a fight to protect the tribe becomes a fight to save his soul, unwittingly putting the fate of the planet squarely on his shoulders.
Inevitability pervades throughout War. It’s not in how this is the third film in a series where audiences know the general outcome. It’s not in how each of the films in this trilogy are slowly creeping up on the start of the original film. It’s in the way Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback (The Wolverine) begin the film in the flourishing woodland then have it climax in the barren snow, or in how Caesar’s grey hairs are more prevalent across his once youthful body, or in the reductive presence of humanity with their “sapien killer” helmet tags and “ape-ocalypse now” graffiti and decaying infrastructure. From the start, the scene is set for entropy to take hold and each moment cuts down to the bone. Though Reeves and Bomback do introduce some much needed levity in the form of Steve Zahn’s lonely Bad Ape, his inclusion eventually undercuts the tonal asceticism which informs the excruciating nature of war.
Returning as Caesar, Andy Serkis once more delivers an uncanny performance deserving of the highest accolades. From his earliest performance in Rise to his final scene in War, Serkis conveys a depth of character so great that audiences find themselves rooting against humanity’s own survival. Dark though that may sound, through this trilogy, Serkis does more than play the part of a hyper-intelligent monkey, but plays that of an outsider who only wishes to live in harmony. Caesar’s care and compassion, his earnest love for ape-kind and humanity, and even his internal struggle against the fear of becoming Koba (the ape who both betrayed him and started the war against humanity) flow off the screen due to Serkis’ continually uplifting and frequently heartbreaking performance. If this turn as the perpetually besieged Caesar doesn’t result in an Oscar nomination, then the Academy needs a re-evaluation of its standards.
But what is a hero without a villain? Woody Harrelson’s Colonel is the chief antagonist in the story, whose impact is gargantuan despite his screen time being minimal. On the face of it, the Colonel, like so many other humans in positions of power, merely wants to eradicate the apes he believes are a threat to humanity. However, Reeves and Bomback provide a reasonable foundation for the Colonel’s mission, which Harrelson conveys with absolute perfection. He’s a military man whose religion is war and the ape-ocalypse has arrived. A lesser performer would deliver a performance full of caricature, whereas Harrelson utilizes every second of his screen time to offer a somber, fully-realized man who recognizes that which Caesar does not: the inevitable end of humankind on Earth.
The narrative repeatedly challenges audiences to see themselves as Caesar – a lost, scared individual seeking peace and freedom – resulting in viewers finding themselves rooting against humanity’s survival across three films. By building the series around the character and choices of Caesar, compounded with increasingly brilliant performances from Serkis, the inescapable end of humanity being reduced to sloven, intellectually inferior brutes with apes as their masters seems acceptable and is almost welcomed.
Without question, War of the Planet of the Apes is a superb film whose story unravels through twist after twist, the reverberations of which send shockwaves of emotion through the audience. In a cinematic era of constant remakes, reboots, and rehashes, War for the Planet of the Apes serves as a reminder that great cinema is born from exceptional storytelling, breathtaking performances, and the recognition that a grand story doesn’t have to mean a large one.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.