The following review is spoiler-free.
The prequel “Planet of the Apes” trilogy has done the seemingly impossible.
One, it has taken the popular Hollywood reboot trend and spun it on its head. It revitalized a popular franchise from the late ‘60s and ‘70s without retreading old material or feeling forced in order to make money.
Two, it has made audiences care about CGI apes, largely thanks to the masterful work of lead actor Andy Serkis. With each entry, the prequel trilogy has drifted away from human characters. While this may seem like a risk, considering the original films focused on humans, this bet has paid off immensely.
Finally, it has told an epic saga, with each film feeling like their own individual chapter in the grander story of Serkis’ Caesar.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was the origin story, detailing Caesar’s love for humans through characters played by James Franco, John Lithgow, and Freida Pinto.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the action-packed entry in the trilogy. Telling a complex, almost-political tale about control and survival between humans and within the ape community, “Dawn” made it clear that Caesar was the protagonist of this trilogy, and his turmoil with rival ape Koba made for a truly compelling narrative.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” is the most personal entry in the trilogy. Those hoping for large-scale battles may leave disappointed, as “War” is as grounded as a sci-fi blockbuster can be.
While “War” may not be as epic as its title or marketing imply, the final product is something better. Taking place two years after “Dawn” (as explained in some great opening text exposition), “War” is Caesar’s most personal journey yet.
Dealing with themes of leadership, revenge, and family, “War” is almost solely about Caesar. He is rarely off-screen, and director Matt Reeves even chooses to display some scenes from the point of view of Caesar. The film’s message of unity and its examination of Caesar’s role as a leader feels like a truly fitting end to this trilogy.
With all of this talk of Caesar, Andy Serkis must, once again, be praised for his incredible acting and motion capture skills. From Caesar’s gait to his facial expressions and voice, Serkis dedicates himself fully to the role.
Other motion capture actors shine as well. Steve Zahn plays the humorous Bad Ape, and his performance adds some needed levity to the film. Karin Konoval reprises her role as the wise and lovable orangutan Maurice, and her performance continues to be great.
In the same breath, the digital effects should be praised as well. The apes are extremely detailed, and their emotions are as easy to read as any human.
With his handling of the apes, the gritty battle scenes, and the post-apocalyptic landscapes, Matt Reeves shows an expert hand in “War”. The best example of this is the powerful opening battle sequence and the suspenseful showdown that follows in the first act. Throughout the whole film, everything feels visceral and tense, making the world feel real.
Part of this is due to the brilliant score. Much of the dialogue in “War” is done through sign language between the apes. Without audible dialogue, the movie relies heavily on its music, and it exceeds in this job. Beyond just this, the music in all sequences, whether they be focused on action, suspense, or drama, fits perfectly.
Continuing the trend of “Dawn”, “War” scraps the human cast of the previous film, adding Woody Harrelson as the major human character. He plays the Colonel, a military leader who serves as the antagonist to Caesar. This description is reductive, however, as I was relieved to see Harrelson is more than just a one-dimensional character. Just as in “Dawn”, the villain is the hero of his own story, and he is doing what he views as best for his species.
This dynamic, in addition to some great plot twists, helps make “War” as smart and thought-provoking as its predecessor. Through Caesar’s relationship with the Colonel, “War” succeeds as the end to the prequel saga. By the end, Caesar has come full circle with the humans, and the most pivotal scene in this arc is handled beautifully by Matt Reeves.
In this scene, Caesar realizes that his world has become just as desolate and heartbreaking for the humans as it has for him. In this moment, “War” proves it doesn’t need battle sequences to be epic, and that’s what makes it one of the best blockbusters of the year.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” is a fantastic end to a truly impressive trilogy. After establishing Caesar as the hero in the first two films, “War” is the definitive story for Caesar. It cements him as one of science fiction’s best characters, and his realizations of family, revenge, and leadership serve as great conclusions to the arcs that have come before. The music, special effects, motion capture, and steady hand of director Matt Reeves all give “War” a definitive step up from other blockbusters. It may not be as action-packed or fast-paced as some may expect, but “War” chooses to be something more personal. Caesar has been the beating heart of this prequel trilogy from the start, and “War” gives him the epic and testing journey any classic character deserves.