After delivering a stunning and emotional sequel in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, director Matt Reeves returns to close out the series with a final chapter even more powerful and poignant than its predecessor. War for the Planet of the Apes is the most atypical summer tentpole in recent memory, a somber and melancholy rumination about the choices we make and the often painful task of living with the aftermath, told from the perspective of the most convincing digital creation ever committed to film.
It’s been two years since the events of the previous film, when civil war erupted among the apes and Caesar (Andy Serkis) was forced to dispatch his mutinous lieutenant, Koba (Toby Kebbell). After violating one of the most important tenets of his people’s culture – “ape not kill ape” – Caesar finds himself continually haunted by the deed, and questioning his worthiness as the leader of the flourishing ape society, as his followers regard him with the same deference as before, along with a new emotion: fear.
The apes have retreated deep into the forests, but any hope for peace with the humans has been eradicated by a battle-hardened special forces colonel named McCullough (Woody Harrelson), who doggedly pursues The opening sequences finds the Colonel’s men stalking through the forests toward the ape compound, wearing helmets emblazoned with slogans like “Bedtime for Bonzo” and “Kong Killer,” and using some of Koba’s former disciples (each spray-painted with the word “donkey”) to haul ammunition and scout for Caesar’s sentries. The prospect of these apes working with the enemy to snuff out their own kind might seem jarring at first, but bears a striking similarity to the way humans will also take sides in a conflict, often seemingly against their best interests.
The aftermath of the battle leaves heavy casualties on both sides, and as the apes prepare for another retreat, Caesar gives himself over to rage, fleeing into the wilderness in pursuit of their attackers. Accompanied by trusted confidants like Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and a surprisingly chatty newcomer (Steve Zahn), Caesar is out for revenge – but as his darker emotions threaten to consume him, the consequences of his actions also portend severe repercussions for his entire species.
Despite the epic conflict promised by its title, War for the Planet of the Apes is fairly light on major action sequences. Sure, there’s the aforementioned opening skirmish, and the climactic battle glimpsed in the trailers and TV spots, but the vast majority of the film is a much quieter affair that finds Caesar reflecting on the choices that led his people down such a dire path. It’s also a particularly effective meditation on grief and the actions it can inspire, as we learn that Caesar isn’t the only character whose personal losses are fueling a quest for retribution – the Colonel may seem like little more than a zealot, but the genesis of his hatred for the apes is mired in tragedy.
As one of only a pair of human characters given any real depth (the other notable exception is Amiah Miller’s mute adolescent girl, taken in by Maurice), the Colonel shares a number of qualities with his nemesis, including an ability to inspire confidence and loyalty in his followers. Resisting the urge to chew scenery, Harrelson instead opts to imbue McCullough with a quiet intensity, rarely removing his sunglasses or elevating his voice above a conversational level – which only serves to make him more terrifying. And unlike the human antagonists in previous installments, the Colonel both respects and admires Caesar and his followers, and is careful not to underestimate their intellect.
Of course, the humans aren’t exactly the main attraction in War for the Planet of the Apes, and once again the team at Weta Digital has raised the bar, combining motion-capture performance with the most immersive and lifelike visual effects ever accomplished. The level of detail here is completely off the charts, and there’s no suspension of disbelief required to become engrossed in the lives of Caesar and his companions – everything looks so incredible that there’s never a need to question the reality we’ve been presented with. And with his most complex and nuanced performance to date, Andy Serkis makes the best argument yet for his inclusion in the Best Actor conversations – or at the very least, the creation of a new awards category specifically for these types of roles.
The film isn’t without its faults, including an underdeveloped subplot about a member of the Colonel’s squad who seems conflicted after an early encounter with Caesar, and an over-reliance on Steve Zahn’s wide-eyed, childlike character as a source of comic relief whose jokes fall flat more than they should. But despite these minor flaws, make no mistake: War for the Planet of the Apes is an absolute masterpiece. Reeves has delivered a thrilling and impactful epic that shatters the mold for summer blockbuster entertainment, and cements the franchise’s legacy as one of the greatest cinematic trilogies of all time.