Review: 'War For The Planet Of The Apes' Starring Andy Serkis & Woody Harrelson

"War" can mean a lot of things, but we typically expect it to be a major ongoing conflict between two rival nations. But there are other kinds of war, more personal wars, that are fought without armies, yet with consequences that could spread far and wide. War for the Planet of the Apes is indeed a war movie, but to go in expecting it to be an all-out action flick would be wrong, too. It's also about the internal conflict raging within Caesar (Andy Serkis) as he seeks to save his kind, while also getting revenge against the humans he never wanted to fight with in the first place. This is blockbuster filmmaking at its best, providing summer thrills with deep characterization the likes of which we simply don't see that often anymore.

It's amazing how much Matt Reeves has elevated this franchise in his second movie, following up from  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes which was itself pretty incredible. And that's not a knock on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, either, which easily washed off the stink of Tim Burton's awful 2001 reboot.  That film is in the trashbin of history where it belongs, while this trilogy may go down in cinematic history as one of the best.

The confidence Reeves has in himself as a filmmaker is felt in every scene. This isn't a huge action spectacle. It's a character piece and a gradually-building thriller about the true cost of vengeance. It also continues Caesar's ascendancy into more than just the leader of intelligent apes, but into a figure of myth and legend. Because of the actions of the violent Koba in the last movie, the apes now find themselves hopelessly at war with the humans, specifically The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a relentless and brutal foe set on wiping the apes out for good. Caesar has tried to avoid more bloodshed, moving what remains of his group deep into the forests and making an offer of peace. But it is rejected, and as is so often the case he is betrayed from within. A sudden strike from the humans leaves Caesar so devastated that he sets on a path for vengeance, essentially giving up his leadership in the process.

What follows is a long, dark journey of the soul for Caesar, but don't think for a second that this is a dull film. There are twists and revelations over every snowy hill, many of which link impressively with the 1968 Planet of the Apes. We also see Caesar's continued battle with himself, especially when it comes to the caring of a young human girl (Amiah Miller) found along the way. The memory of Koba continues to flash before Caesar's eyes as he grapples with not becoming like his most hated enemy. 

Reeves sets up a winding, heavily atmospheric slow burn with echoes of the mad quest in Apocalypse Now, an allusion made starker by The Colonel, a raving Kurtz-like lunatic if ever there was one. In fact, he's one of the film's only weak spots. While Harrelson gives an appropriately twisted performance, one that makes clear which side of this war is more animalistic, The Colonel is largely a blank slate except for one extensive monologue. In a way it makes sense, though. The apes have evolved to such a degree that they are more human than their opponents, which explains why there is no need for the "good guy" human character this time. Caesar fully fills that role now, and again Serkis is so good he deserves to be considered a Best Actor contender. Who cares that he's using motion capture? Give the man the trophy! The emotion he's able to portray underneath all of that hair and fur is truly remarkable. I think we've grown so accustomed to him being great that Serkis is being taken for granted a little bit. That needs to change. He's joined by Steve Zahn in arguably the film's most memorable character, and only source of comic relief, Bad Ape. He's been off on his own so long he no longer knows how to act. But boy is he a snazzy dresser, for an ape. 

Visually, 'War' maintains the high standard set by the folks at WETA. These movies have always looked great but as the scale has increased, with more digital apes engaged in bigger conflicts, WETA has stepped up each and every time. The fur and hair and eyes, these are the hardest things to capture and they do it flawlessly. Serkis is a pro and he can make you shed tears for a talking warrior primate, but WETA gives him the tools to do it. 

War for the Planet of the Apes is such a triumph that fans awaiting Reeves' take on The Batman should be getting pumped right now. He just knows how to make big, bold movies that are exciting as Hell and just as thought-provoking. We may be looking at the end of a tremendous franchise, but we're just on the ground floor of Reeves' potential, and that is something to look forward to. 

Rating: 4 out of 5