'War for the Planet of the Apes' Review: A Sophisticated, Brilliant Blockbuster

Finally, an exceptional blockbuster with heart and soul.

War Apes Review Header

Finally, an exceptional blockbuster with heart and soul.

In Matt Reeves’ dark, aching and outstanding War for the Planet of the Apes, the third film of by far the finest and most vital Hollywood franchise around, the first ape we get to see is referred to as Donkey. Our initial introduction to Donkey is part of this technologically unsurpassed chapter’s emotionally disquieting opening sequence, in which Reeves drops us right in the middle of the action like the best of war films do. Michael Seresin’s lens eerily tracks a pack of ape-hunting, gun-carrying human soldiers from behind, while lingering on the backs of various helmets just long enough, so we can read “Monkey Killer,” “Bedtime for Bonzo” and “Endangered Species” inscribed on them. We realize Donkey is a traitor, driven not by loyalty or pride, but by wartime survival instincts. Like other traitors called by the same name, he obediently consents to the pejorative at gunpoint (the biting proposition of course is, arrogant humans somehow perceive “donkey” as a derogatory word) and serves the slaughterers of his own kind with the promise of continued existence, however undignified it may be. We also realize the humans’ prejudice and vicious hatred of apes have ultimately reached an irreversible point with the threat of extinction.

This terrific opening shrewdly guides the viewer into a dread, despair and betrayal-filled world that steadily expands with the lyricism of Seresin’s gloomy cinematography, until it explodes with unspeakable suffering. (Is it a coincidence that Seresin also shot the best-looking and darkest Harry Potter film, The Prisoner of Azkaban?) In this chapter that follows Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we are years into the war that first brews in Dawn, ignited by the now-dead Koba; a tortured ape who knew the kind of cruelty and agony human hands can cause all too well. Apes’ leader Caesar (with his emotionally widest-ranging Caesar to date, Andy Serkis deserves his own acting category at the Oscars) lives in hiding in the woods with his loyal clan, only fighting to protect his family and people.

Reeves, who also directed Dawn with the same kind of attentive refinement (and improved upon Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In with his version called Let Me In), takes the slightest bit of time to whisk the audience away to Caesar’s neck of the woods. And when he does, he intentionally sets our sighting of him in direct contrast to the aforementioned introduction of Donkey. We don’t immediately see Caesar with a head-on shot. Instead, we first look through his eyes via Seresin’s gracefully brooding camera that assumes Caesar’s POV, as he ceremoniously walks among his respectfully bowing followers like the upright leader he is. When we are finally shown his face, the image—thanks to both Serkis’ majestic performance and the jaw-dropping WETA technology—is so believable and affecting that we almost feel like bowing down ourselves. Rest assured that this is a film (and franchise) where technology is used to serve and elevate the narrative as opposed to the other way around. In War, that narrative is at times largely dialogue-free and uncompromisingly infused with a kind of sophisticated, freakish realism that is hard to put into words. Let’s just say this is how you make a technologically advanced blockbuster with a heart. During War, one completely forgets the film is mostly carried by a group of signing and talking chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas.

Caesar was raised but ultimately let down by humans in Rise and held back by his continued affection for them in Dawn. But in War, his demand from our kind is clear: “Give us the woods, and the killing can stop.” We are reminded that Koba died in Caesar’s hands after all, which alone should have been sufficient to convince our species on his anti-war stance. But humans, who continue to not only fight against apes, but also against the evolving simian flu that first emerged in Rise and wiped out hordes of our population by Dawn, are predictably at their worst when driven by fear. Here, we find the dangerous disease has morphed into something insidious that robs people of their ability to speak, while apes’ human-like skills continue to grow. Anticipating humankind’s total extinction, a callous Colonel (Woody Harrelson, a shaved-headed, nightmarish vision from hell) fights the most brutal and ruthless of wars to exterminate all apes before they take over the world one day in accordance with the law of nature. In a stunning, gut-wrenching sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in Apocalypse Now (the film soon enough spells out this obvious reference with an “Ape-ocalypse” graffiti), he murders Caesar’s wife and older son, awakening a dark, vengeful side in Caesar that signals parallels to Koba. Refusing to relocate with the rest of clan, Caesar decides to hunt down the Colonel and take his revenge.

The script by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Matt Reeves and Amanda Silver is thankfully much too smart to boil War down to a simplistic payback film. Joined by Maurice (Karin Konoval, just as terrific as Serkis), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), an ex-zoo ape who calls himself “Bad Ape” like condescending humans once did (Steve Zahn, doing wonders with his character that occasionally tries too hard to be a comic relief) and a young orphan (Amiah Miller) whose speech is already vanished due to the epidemic, Caesar chases and finally finds the Colonel, only to fall prisoner to him. It would of course only be a matter of time until the two have to settle personal stakes and fight against each other for the survival of their own species. The lengthy and awe-inspiring act spent in the Colonel’s camp is unforgiving. Harrelson memorably paints the portrait of a merciless officer, the kind we’ve seen in WWII films, that murders without even blinking. Imprisoned baby apes weep. Backstabbing runs amok.

In case any part of this is unclear, War isn’t quite the feel-good, ‘lesson learned’-type summer blockbuster you might expect or want it to be. It’s not the kind that conforms to our on-paper ideals and banks on our environmental, “green guilt,” so we can nod in agreement every time humans’ arrogance, destructiveness, and greed are brought into questioning (which is nearly every second of the film’s well-earned 142-minute running time) and take some small comfort in knowing, “we aren’t all that bad.” The great Rise was that movie to some degree. Dawn (maybe to a fault) was that movie. And even Steven Spielberg’s masterful classic Jurassic Park was that movie that should have taught us not to play God. But the elegiac, poetically austere War is something else, something a lot deeper, more philosophical and soul-crushing altogether. Aided by Michael Giacchino’s grief-stricken, imposing score (an instant classic that advances on-screen emotions rather than prescribing them), War highlights the worth of dignity, loyalty, goodwill, and sacrifice by imagining a world that nearly lacks it all in the human race. In its mildest moments, War for the Planet of the Apes makes you lament our doomed fate, made inevitable by our insatiable greed and reminds you through the innocent child there might still be a glimmer of hope for us all. But by the end, it just makes you want to crawl under your theater seat in a deep, permanent state of shame and heartbreak. The horror! The horror!

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.