“War for the Planet of the Apes” caps off one of the most surprising film trilogies to come out of Hollywood in recent years, and does it with one of the year’s best action films this year.
Beginning with 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and continuing with 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the trilogy tells the story of Caesar, a legendary ape who led a race of genetically-modified simians to dominate the planet earth.
It is also the tale of mankind at its worst.
Greed and hunger for profit created a virus that simultaneously increased the intelligence of apes while decimating the human population of the planet. A biotech company’s animal testing program and callous treatment of imprisoned apes by its employees created fear, distrust and a deep resentment of humans that eventually sparked the war. A military attack on the apes who sought sanctuary in the woods, away from humans, stirred that pot to a frenzy, which ultimately leads to the events in “War for the Planet of the Apes.”
Throughout, the viewer sees the sins of humankind from the perspective of the apes, connecting with their desire to be safe and live their lives in seclusion. Humans — fearful and facing extinction — hunt the apes, out of a mixture of fear and vengeance.
“War” picks up mid-battle, as the last remaining pockets of humanity are not only at war with the apes, but also with each other. The apes are just seeking a safe place to live and raise their families in peace, while a breakaway military unit led by ‘The Colonel’ (Woody Harrelson) is intent on hunting the apes to extinction.
The war at the heart of this film was inevitable, predictable from the moment the apes escaped the lab in “Rise,” and its ultimate conclusion here is both satisfying and bittersweet.
Directed and co-written by Matt Reeves, who also helmed the 2014 installment, “War” is actor Andy Serkis’ third appearance as Caesar. Having garnered much acclaim for his performance-capture work as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s five films set in Middle-earth as well as his two prior performances as Caesar, Serkis brings remarkable life and character to the reluctant leader of the apes.
It’s the amazing performance capture work of Serkis, Karin Konoval (Maurice), Terry Notary (Rocket), Michael Adamthwaite (Luca) and newcomer Steve Zahn as ‘Bad Ape’ that elevates “War” beyond typical summer popcorn fare. The characters seem real, their motivations understandable and their emotions relatable.
The introduction of Zahn’s ‘Bad Ape,’ a common chimpanzee who has lived for years as a hermit until being discovered by Caesar’s tribe and joins them, brings a big heap of comic relief that could have gone poorly in a film with such dark undertones. However, Reeves finds a way to develop a script that uses Zahn’s talents perfectly and without taking too much away from the serious messages being delivered by the film, and Zahn nails the performance-capture work and brings to life a character who is funny, intelligent and charming while also exemplifying the tragedy that has befallen the apes — most of whom have little idea why they’re being hunted.
The result of it all is an action-adventure film that has heart and captivates the imagination. It’s the end of a trilogy that tells the story of the apes’ rise to intelligence and eventually challenging mankind for dominance on Earth under Caesar's leadership. It’s also not likely to be the end of films in the rebooted “Planet of the Apes” franchise. Let’s just hope the next film lives up to the high standard set by this one.