Who would have ever guessed that FOX’s second reboot of its Planet of the Apes franchise would have grown into the most reliable sci-fi series going? Yet here we are, three years after the masterful Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and along comes a third chapter — named War for the Planet of the Apes in appropriately escalating fashion — that fits alongside the first two as an engrossing bit of summer cinema that’s as thought-provoking as it is stunning to look at.
So much of what could be said has been said already twice before: Yes, the apes are stunning — computer-generated creatures driven by real actors that feel as authentic as flesh-and-blood performances. And the technology has only improved since the last movie. Just look at the way the snow lays on the characters’ fur as the action in War moves to colder climates. As always, Andy Serkis’s Caesar is the standout. He’s older here, more tired, but no less willing to do what he must to protect his family and the larger ape community under his care. The new film also introduces Bad Ape, a chatty zoo escapee played by Steve Zahn who is destined to become a fan favorite.
War ports over the same creative team as the last film. Matt Reeves is back as director and co-wrote the script with the also returning Mark Bomback. The two have created a story that’s not as satisfyingly complex as the one in Dawn but does riff on a number of genres that prove an interesting mix with the Apes universe. War opens as (appropriately) a war movie before morphing into something that feels very much like a western. (If you’ve ever yearned for an Apes movie that’s part Unforgiven/part Apocalypse Now, you’ve come to the right place.) It also turns into a prison-break yarn for its final third, but all of these different pieces are integrated fairly seamlessly into the over-arching story.
The humans are less interesting this time around, in part because there are really only two that matter. One is Woody Harrelson’s Colonel Kurtz-esque military commander, who cares for himself first, humans second and the apes not a lick. The other is a female human child named Nova (which should ring a bell with fans of the original Apes series) who ends up being adopted by the apes as they head out on a quest for revenge. Harrelson is solid as usual, but his headstrong colonel can’t compete with Koba, the ape villain at the center of Dawn (and an all-timer).
War is contemplative and slow at times but also hugely rewarding to fans of the rebooted series. Returning characters like Maurice and Rocket are given great moments that add to their ongoing stories. And, by the end, the film largely feels like the final chapter of a superb trilogy. Not that FOX couldn’t carry on with parts four, five and so on — enough story threads are left dangling for them to do so. And, really, these films so far have offered a narrower-than-expected view of the state of things following the Simian Flu Pandemic, choosing to focus more on Caesar and his personal journey than the changed world at large. No doubt we could get a larger look at the burgeoning ape society in future installments.
But, right now, this is a completed story well told. By keeping the stakes somewhat small and personal, Rise, Dawn and War have been the rare summer blockbusters that focus on character foremost, highlighting the emotion in the apes’ eyes over explosions and other cinematic bombast every single time. The fact that those eyes are computer generated only adds to the impressiveness and laudability of the feat.