A heady and surprisingly effective blend of war movie, westerns, Shakespearean drama, and Biblical allegory, War for the Planet of the Apes is a top-notch conclusion to what stands as an unexpectedly epic series that continues to punch above its weight class. Its arrival during a summer increasingly defined by franchise fatigue gives a spark of hope that reboots and sequels — the current modus operandi of Hollywood — can sometimes be justified.
Writer-director Matt Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback have created a satisfying, organic, and entirely believable conclusion for the character arc of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the tormented, super-intelligent chimpanzee whose struggle to find a place in both the human and primate worlds resulted in an apocalyptic event that initiated the fall of the former and the rise of the latter.
War takes place fifteen years after those events, the subject of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), and just tow years after the full-on outbreak of hostilities between ape and man (as well as ape and ape) as portrayed in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). Caesar’s crown lies heavy, and he is haunted by visions of the traitorous bonobo Koba (Toby Kebbell), whom he slew in violation of his own law, “ape must not kill ape”. Attempts to end the conflict with humans have failed, and the apes are now actively hunted by a small army of determined soldiers. After a deeply personal loss, Caesar uproots his tribe and sends them toward what he hopes is a safe destination while he treads a darker path, accompanied by three of his closest confidants.
Their journey leads them first to a mute young human girl, Nova (Amiah Miller); later, they acquire a guide in the form of a chimpanzee hermit named Bad Ape (a scene-stealing Steve Zahn), who confirms that the Simian Flu has mutated and now has an unforeseen new effect on humans.
They eventually encounter the source of their woes, Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), a man so embittered and consumed by a single-minded desire to destroy the apes that his superiors have disowned him. In fact, he’s using apes as slave labor to build defensive fortifications before an opposing force arrives to “relive him of command”.
Reeves and company use this tableaux to compare and contrast Caesar and McCullough as they navigate a moral grey zone, an do so while channeling cinematic influences ranging from Apocalypse Now and The Great Escape to The Searchers, Spartacus, and even a touch of The Ten Commandments. It’s an admixture that works remarkably well.
One of the series’ key strengths is its combo of stunningly photo-realistic CGI combined with masterful motion-capture performances by Serkis et al. War manages to one-up its predecessors with the films’ most detailed and realistic effects to date, and Serkis wears Caesar’s virtual skin as if it were his own.
The movie is visually stunning on every level, actually, with the CGI primates blending almost seamlessly into Michael Seresin’s haunting cinematography. Michael Giacchino’s pulsing score, which includes a brilliant re-orchestration of the original 1968 theme, is robust and primal.
Although this marks the end of what could be dubbed “The Caesar Trilogy”, the series have been artistically and financially successful enough to no doubt engender more. Time will tell if and when they arrive, and in what form. Until then: hail Caesar.