Six years ago, when they announced a reboot of Planet of the Apes, I probably rolled my eyes. But Rise of the Planet of the Apes turned out to be one of 2011’s most surprising films. It took a campy B-movie franchise and made it thoughtful, compelling, and visually stunning. Six years later, the series continues to impress and surprise. War for the Planet of the Apes is the biggest and the riskiest Planet of the Apes movie yet – it’s also the best. It might just be the best movie of the summer.
It’s been twelve years since the virus that made apes more intelligent and devastated the human population was released. The humans continue to wage war against Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the apes, who, after years of attempting to live in isolation in the forest, have decided to leave to find a new home. But before they can leave, a fanatical Colonel (Woody Harrelson) attacks the apes’ home, killing Caesar’s wife and son. Caesar sends his community to travel over the mountains while he leads a small team of apes to kill the Colonel.
The Planet of the Apes series has been remarkably effective at building on itself with each film getting bigger and bolder than the last. What began as a sci-fi escape story in Rise escalated to a gritty action thriller in Dawn and now has become a full-fledged post-apocalyptic epic. War for the Planet of the Apes is the longest film in the franchise at 144 minutes, but it has more than enough substance to fill that time without feeling stretched out or leisurely. The battle and action sequences don’t overstay their welcome and the focus stays where it should be, which is on the characters. War is also the most ape focused film of the franchise. In previous entries, Caesar has always shared the spotlight with a human protagonist, but not here. In War of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar, played by Andy Serkis, who continues to drive the argument that motion capture performances are Oscar-worthy, is the bonafide star of this film.
Weta Workshop’s effects are the most impressive I’ve ever seen. In earlier films, it was easy to marvel at the animation and effects work. In War, it’s easy to forget that the stars of the movie are animated at all. With animation being so good, it’s easy to forget that director Matt Reeves, who also helmed Dawn, is taking an enormous risk by centering the film around the apes. It says a lot about the strange state of technology and society that today it seems less risky to build a prestige action drama around a CGI ape than a woman.
While the screenplay by Reeves and Mark Bomback is distinctly team ape, the series doesn’t abandon the moral complexities that has made the series so fascinating to watch. Humanity’s fight for survival has become increasingly dire. The virus that killed of the population has mutated into a disease that makes people unable to speak. The Colonel sees this as a sign of a potential devolution of the human race and has begun to kill anyone who shows the symptoms. Meanwhile, the society of apes is on the verge of fracture, with several apes working with the humans as slaves called Donkeys in exchange for mercy during the impending war.
Strange as it may seem, The Planet of the Apes has become the ideal franchise for the modern social and political climate. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was about scientific hubris and evolution. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a compelling allegory for how terrorism can color the perception of an entire population. War for the Planet of the Apes is a study of fear and rage and how our lesser angels can have damning consequences. Its undeniably the darkest film in the franchise, both in its tone, and its bleak, snowy pallet. Caesar has come a long way from his first understanding of what violence is, to the realization that he has, despite his best intentions, lived the life of a warrior.
War for the Planet of the Apes likely won’t be the last film of the series, but it feels like a tipping point. It’s a big, bold, and beautifully engrossing film. Weta has delivered what might be the best digital effects in any film ever, but their matched by beautiful cinematography by Michael Seresin. The score by Michael Giacchino is sweeping and percussive and helps give this film the gravity it deserves. The entire film feels like a combination of people working at the top of the game to deliver something special. War for the Planet of the Apes is more than a good summer movie; it’s a bonafide epic.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
War for the Planet of the Apes succeeds on just about every metric you can gauge a film by. Matt Reeves has delivered something exceptional here. The film isn’t just a technical marvel that wows visually. The effects are so good that they become invisible, letting you dive into the film’s epic story. It’s a film that feels both timeless and incredibly of the moment, and not just because this movie physically could not have been made five years ago. It’s a film that investigates big questions and accepts that there are no easy answers and manages to be fantastically entertaining at the same time. Against all odds, The Planet of the Apes has evolved into one of the most surprising and successful modern franchises, and War for the Planet of the Apes is its masterpiece.