[This is a re-post of my review that posted in late June. War for the Planet of the Apes opens tonight.]
The Planet of the Apes franchise has many legacies, but among my favorite is that these movies really get away with something. There’s really no such thing as a “safe” Planet of the Apes movie because all of them are indictments of humanity in some way. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is perhaps the most audience friendly of the saga, but even that has given way to the bleak Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Matt Reeves’ concluding and even bleaker chapter War for the Planet of the Apes. While other franchises have to make concessions “for the fans” (i.e. people who demands nostalgic reverence and reaffirming nods rather than challenging movies) or try to chase trends, the Apes movies have surprisingly been left alone, allowed to flourish, thrive, and become one of the best sci-fi series ever made.
Although War for the Planet of the Apes’ summer release date combined with the VFX-heavy work required to bring the apes to life signals a “summer blockbuster,” Reeves has not made that movie. If anything, there’s probably less action than 2014’s Dawn, and it’s ultimately for the better. War is a somber, tense journey that goes from being a revenge film to a savior narrative to an escape story, but Reeves expertly weaves it all together through Caesar and the culmination of a saga that started back with Rise.
War picks up two years after the events of Dawn. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of apes have been squaring off against the troops that were called in at the end of the last movie, led by a relentless, Kurtzian figure known The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After an attack on his home, Caesar breaks away from his apes to track down and exact revenge on the Colonel, but close friends Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) lend their support. As they make their way to find the Colonel’s compound, they eventually join up with Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), an ape who learned to talk despite not being from Caesar’s tribe, and Nova (Amiah Miller), a young human girl who has lost the ability to speak.
The Apes franchise, especially this installment, could have easily devolved into an empty spectacle of humans fighting apes, and while there is a skirmish at the beginning of the film that shows why the two sides are evenly matched, it’s clear that Reeves doesn’t have much interest in staging these battles even though he’s incredibly good at it. Instead, he’s far more focused on the interior life of his characters, especially Caesar and how he relates to his fellow apes as well as trying to bring peace to his people.
War for the Planet of the Apes ends up making a strong case for the necessity of franchise filmmaking. While franchises can certainly be hollow and lack stakes as studios keep focusing on future installments and wringing out every ounce of profit before the audience grows tired of the property, the Caesar Trilogy gains its power from being a complete story that follows not only Caesar, but also Maurice and Rocket. War is not a movie you can dive right into, because the emotional impact will be diminished if you haven’t seen Rise and Dawn.