War for the Planet of the Apes is as satisfying a conclusion to Caesar's journey as it is a compelling standalone, big-budget blockbuster experience.
Two years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow apes have been driven deeper into the woods near San Francisco. The highly-intelligent simians now find themselves being hunted by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), the mysterious and highly-effective military figure who sees the apes as an imminent threat to humankind's survival that must be stamped-out, at any cost. Although Caesar initially attempts to broker some peace agreement between the two sides, that all changes when The Colonel and his men launch a devastating attack against the apes - leaving Caesar wrestling with and then embracing a dark desire for vengeance.
While the rest of the apes thereafter set off to find a safe place far away from their old home, Caesar instead goes on the hunt for The Colonel, accompanied by his longtime allies like Maurice (Karin Konoval). Along the way, Caesar and his allies cross paths with an enigmatic human girl (Amiah Miller) - whom the apes wind up bringing along - as well as a chimp calling himself "Bad Ape" (Steve Zahn), who knows where The Colonel and his troops are headed. Caesar soon finds himself facing his greatest challenge yet though, once it becomes clear that there is far more at stake here than just his quest for revenge.
War for the Planet of the Apes sees Dawn of the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves return to take the helm once more, with the intention of bringing the story of Caesar the ape to a worthy end. The third chapter in the Planet of the Apes reboot/prequel trilogy - which started with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011 and continued with Dawn - also aims to further pave the way for the state of things in the very first Planet of the Apes film (released back in 1968), without straining to fully connect the dots. Like Dawn before it, War succeeds in these respects and delivers a soulful franchise movie in the process. War for the Planet of the Apes is as satisfying a conclusion to Caesar's journey as it is a compelling standalone, big-budget blockbuster experience.
From a directorial perspective, Reeves matches and in some ways exceeds his work on Dawn with his efforts on War for the Planet of the Apes. In addition to boasting some of the most photorealistic motion-capture characters ever put to the big screen, War is rich in brooding mood/atmosphere thanks to the crisp, dark imagery and gloomy color palette favored by cinematographer Michael Seresin (who also collaborated with Reeves on Dawn). The film's precise usage of sound, silence and another excellent score by Michael Giacchino - one that, like his score for Dawn, is a throwback to the music from the very first Planet of the Apes movie - further amplifies its ominous temperament and dramatic storytelling approach. At the same time, War is never repressive or overly-dismal; there are moments of levity and tenderness throughout (more on them later), but War is very much a tale of survival during a time of terrible conflict. The movie's nods to famous war films such as Full Metal Jacket and The Bridge on the River Kwai are all the more appropriate thematically, for that reason.
War for the Planet of the Apes, as was scripted by Reeves and his Dawn co-writer Mark Bomback, plays out as a slow-burn narrative for the first two-thirds of its runtime, before culminating with a third act climax that (although more action-packed and, literally, explosive by comparison) still favors intimate, character-focused moments over high-octane spectacle. The plot threads in War all serve to advance either the movie's larger sociopolitical themes and/or story and character arcs, yet are not always as tightly-woven together and focused as they could have been. Similarly, there are a small handful of plot beats in War that are either overly-telegraphed or derivative in their nature, resulting in an overarching narrative that isn't quite as rock-solid as the one that Reeves and Bomback assembled for Dawn. As a whole, however, War has a robust plot structure that (unlike certain other franchise movies) works as both a self-contained story and as a continuation of the Apes property. Considering that War even begins by quickly recapping the most important events in the previous two Apes films, newcomers who lack a deeper knowledge of where this series has been (and/or where it's heading) should still be able to keep up and enjoy watching War.
Andy Serkis as Caesar yet again serves as the beating heart of the story in War for the Planet of the Apes. The movie affords Serkis the chance to explore a darker side of the Caesar character (building on his arc from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), with his stirring motion-capture performance aided once more by Weta Digital's stellar computer-generated imagery. War's mo-cap performing ensemble is strong all around, with Karin Konoval once again being the standout as the benevolent, yet seasoned orangutan Maurice - a character who serves as both Caesar's confidante and conscience, here. Among the non-human newcomers here, Steven Zahn is easily the scene-stealer as "Bad Ape", a chimpanzee whose traumatized, yet innocent and childlike demeanor allows for some humorous moments to arise organically in War without feeling forced. Ty Olsson's turn as Rex, a gorilla who serves the human soldiers led by The Colonel, is more subtle by comparison. However, this allows the character to add yet another intriguing wrinkle to the moral ambiguity of the larger apes vs. humans conflict.
Woody Harrelson's The Colonel has a comparatively black-and-white outlook towards the conflict between humanity and apekind, making him more of a villain than an antagonist in War for the Planet of the Apes - unlike Gary Oldman's similar steel-fisted antagonist, from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Harrelson does bring a nice sense of menace and depth to his role here all the same, even given the relatively limited amount of onscreen time that the character gets in the film. The Colonel lacks subtly when it comes to his actions and behavior (not to mention, the political subtext of the character), but that's to be expected - seeing as he's very much a fanatical military leader-gone rogue archetype, a la Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. All the same, The Colonel serves his purpose in War well, testing Caesar as a leader and challenging his own sense of morality in the process. The same goes for the Nova, a character (brought to life via a solid performance by Amiah Miller) who both serves an important role in paving the way to the future of the Apes universe and, along with "Bad Ape", provides a ray of hope and light in the darkness.
While War for the Planet of the Apes leaves the door open for additional Planet of the Apes movies to further bridge the gap to the very first Apes film, its primary goal is to close the book on both Caesar's tale and (most likely) Reeves' time working on this franchise. War is very much a success in this respect, delivering a great blend of artful cinematic storytelling and popcorn entertainment value - not to mention, yet another awards worthy mo-cap performance from Serkis. Those moviegoers who have found themselves growing disillusioned with summer blockbusters of late, in the wake of subpar sequels and/or hollow "cinematic universe" tentpoles: War for the Planet of the Apes is very much the antidote you've been searching for.
War for the Planet of the Apes is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 133 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some disturbing images and brief strong language.
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- War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) release date: Jul 14, 2017