The age of apes is upon us. Matt Reeves’ staggering conclusion to the groundbreaking trilogy of Apes films is an uproarious coup d’état that shatters the blockbuster status quo. Mankind has been upstaged in a powerhouse epic that propels motion capture effects to their apex, and boasts a tour de force performance from Andy Serkis.
The jaw-dropping prequel/reboot series to the long-running Planet of the Apes franchise was initially met with ridicule when buzz of its development began to emerge. Fans who were disgruntled by Tim Burton’s campy 2001 Mark Wahlberg-led remake were flabbergasted by the thematically complex and visually astonishing visual effects of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
That return film was sensational, but it was diminished by flat human characters who were shoved to the peripheries amidst the riveting ape revolution. Rise also featured a distracting barrage of references to the original films, but a change in directors and writing credits brought the series significant reform in 2014’s extraordinary Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
In 2011’s Rise, James Franco’s Will Rodman devised a vaccine that enhanced ape intelligence while it simultaneously decimated the human race. The revolutionary chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) led an exodus of super-simians into the Muir Woods outside of San Francisco while humanity crumbled. In Dawn, Caesar was taught that apes are as corruptible as mankind when a factious traitor attempted to assassinate him to start a war with the surviving humans.
In War for the Planet of the Apes, the devastating bloodshed has left the fates of the dueling predominant species hanging in the balance. Numbers on both sides are critically low, and the outcome of this pivotal conflict will decide which race will inherit the earth. Mankind has been reduced to a small band of militaristic renegades outfitting an arms outpost, while simians are in a mad scramble to locate a living situation that is secure from the mercenaries.
As Caesar witnesses the horrors of combat firsthand, he must grapple with his inner demons while he pieces together what it means to be an ape. If he is to claim preeminence for ape-kind and triumph over man, he needs to first confront head-on “The Colonel” (an expertly deranged Woody Harrelson), a warmongering commander who has descended into a sinister madness in a desperate pursuit of prolonging the human race.
Dawn brandished a profound progression for the simians, and War advances that trend to striking degree, demonstrating a marked improvement in motion capture over the course of the trilogy. The apes in Rise were realistic in character and motion, but their status as counterfeits was easily perceptible. War demonstrates the perfection of the science, and the superb work of the actors transforms these photorealistic creatures into spellbinding thespians.
It has been suggested in years past, but in War it is indisputable: Andy Serkis’s magnificent work demands an Oscar nomination, and for a leading role. Following up widespread praise for characters including Gollum and King Kong, Serkis’s development and expansion of Caesar throughout the Apes trilogy is astounding. Ape performers Steve Zahn and Karin Konoval follow suit as fellow masters of the craft. Woody Harrelson is nuanced and menacing as the Colonel, and the child actress Amiah Miller also impresses as an orphan that befriends Caesar.
After the hectic and rushed production of Dawn, Fox granted director Matt Reeves a longer preparation window for War in response to their pleasure with his work on the second entry. It has been reported in interviews that Reeves spent significant time with head screenwriter Matt Bomback watching classic films to research for the script, examining features such as Bridge On the River Kwai and Ben-Hur.
The end product is a testament to their refined taste, as War is an amalgamation of sophisticated cinema that exhibits inspiration but never plagiarizes. An ape posse on horseback evokes The Outlaw Josey Wales. A simian work camp alludes to the atrocities of Schindler’s List, while a breakout operation will remind you of Escape from Alcatraz. Woody Harrelson recalls Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, and Caesar’s mission to liberate his people harkens back to biblical epics including The Ten Commandments.
War is a dark and intricate rumination on themes of conflict, honor, and moral responsibility, as well as a more effective transmitter of the fascinating topics that emerged in the original Apes saga – but it’s also an exhilarating blockbuster with dazzling action sequences. War is a rousing conclusion to an outstanding trilogy, and a rare summer tent pole that offers an intellectual feast to augment its visceral spectacle.