MOVIE REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes

(Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox via

(Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox via


Through the commanding lead performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar, a significant shift occurred when Rise of the Planet of the Apes evolved into Dawn of the Planet of the Apes three years ago.  The change became a reversal of what side of the conflict garnered your attention and investment in this dystopian science fiction landscape.  Our hearts and allegiances swayed from rooting for the madness of our own mankind to the superior traits of humanity exhibited by Caesar and his ape brethren.  

Think about how challenging that is for a moment.  That’s like finding a way to root for Sauron and hoping Frodo dies before reaching Mordor.  Think about how that was achieved with digital characters emoting through coding and pixels.  Only Pixar has found a way to make us love something that strongly which really isn’t there.  A transformation of empathy like that is downright miraculous.  War for the Planet of Apes is a full-bodied epic of glory and pain that matches and then exceeds the moving importance and heart this rebooted franchise has established in two previous knockout films.

Two years have passed since the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes where the failed mutiny of Koba (Toby Kebbell, returning in visions) in San Francisco severed any threads and chance between human and ape coexistence.  Militarization has mobilized the surviving humans to push Caesar and his apes further into seclusion within the northern California wilderness.  The tip of the military’s spear of obsession is a fierce faction of soldiers led by Colonel McCullough, played with straight cold steel by Woody Harrelson.  He controls his own cache of turncoat apes, including lowland gorilla and former Koba sympathizer Red (Ty Olsson).  

When one of McCullough’s incursions leads to a tragic loss for Caesar, the tribal leader chimpanzee sends his broken people away to sojourn for safer and greener pastures while he turns his gaze of revenge towards the Colonel.  Joining Caesar with the hopes of preventing a suicide mission of vengeance are Rocket (Kong: Skull Island lead Terry Notary) and the sage orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), his two closest confidantes and fellow Gen-Sys originals.  In their tracking through the snowy winter, Caesar’s party gains a pair of strays, a mute human girl nicknamed Nova (Amiah Miller) and a feeble-minded zoo chimp who calls himself Bad Ape (Steve Zahn).  

War may lead this film’s title, but the action quotient is low, should that satiation matter.  I promise it won’t because emotional complexity takes over hits you like a ton of bricks.  War for the Planet of the Apes upholds an immense scope and thickened pace built on a methodical undercurrent of powerful dramatic gravity.  

Think more Spartacus than Jurassic World, especially when the sweeping musical score of Michael Giacchino sounds its presence.  This soundtrack may be his best action work to date, flowing between brassy notes that call back to Jerry Goldsmith, ethereal chants, percussive suspense improved from his earlier days on TV’s Lost, and a poignant piano motif that peeks through the bleak canvas of the film.  The Oscar winner behind Up is the next John Williams and deserves consideration for his second golden statue with this sprawling symphony.

Returning Dawn of the Planet of the Apes screenwriter Mark Bomback teamed with director Matt Reeves to plow a path of raised stakes that are as gripping and intense as they are eloquent and heartrending.  Unlike other fantasy films bent on spectacle and mindless action, every death or fateful decision matters because of the emphasis and commitment that has been this franchise’s foundation.  No matter how hard it wants to, Michael Bay’s robots can’t come close to something like this.  To see Matt Reeves bring his depth to a noirish and detective-centered Batman film is going to be special.  Mark that prediction down now.    

As an entire arc, especially if it ends here, go ahead and, with full confidence, rank these Planet of the Apes prequels among the best movie trilogies of all time.  Put it up there with The Lord of the Rings, Toy Story, the first Star Wars films, The Godfather, and the Nolan Batman films.  Among those, only The Lord of the Rings and Toy Story peaked properly on their final chapters.  Add War for the Planet of the Apes to that short list as the sweeping flourish and overall best of this series.

Finally, the indispensable central talent and imperative greatness happening right in front of our eyes and behind the incomparable special effects must be recognized.  Since playing Gollum for Peter Jackson, Andy Serkis has taken the potential of performance capture technology and turned it into precision of unparalleled heights.  This isn’t bells-and-whistles anymore.  What he does on the set, through voice, posture, body language, and stunt work supersede how good the finished topical effects turn out.  If he doesn’t qualify as a Best Actor Academy Award contender then it’s time to go a step further with a Special Achievement Oscar.  This is true performance taken to another level.      

LESSON #1: APES AND HUMANS HAVE MORE SIMILARITIES THAN WE ALL REALIZE-- Due to the increases in peril and consequences, this is a repeated lesson from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that is cemented even further in this third film.  Both primate species love their families, cling to their homes, and possess tangible feelings and emotions that drive their actions and personalities.  “Humanity” doesn’t have exclusivity to those behaviors in this fictional world anymore.

LESSON #2: THE LEVEL OF MERCY WITHIN LEADERSHIP-- The trait within the burden of leadership that manifests itself in the central conflict and dichotomy of this film is mercy.  Caesar’s reverence and respect come from compassion and nobility.  He is matched against a fractured McCullough that has lost such capacity for tolerance and quarter.  Still, he too acts and commands leadership.

LESSON #3: THE SACRIFICES REQUIRED OF LEADERS-- Removing the boundaries and lines of battlefields and fortresses, both Caesar and McCullough have taken and accepted painful losses as leaders and fathers to get to this point.  Both are haunted, yet motivated, by those sacrifices to not see those faults repeated.  Both seek to see their people and their aspirations through the warring opposition and obstacles set between them and an end to their struggles.