‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is dark, stunning trilogy-closer

Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy
"War for the Planet of the Apes" | Twentieth Century Fox
Grade: 5.0/5.0

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Editor’s Note: The arts and entertainment department is adjusting its grading schema from a letter-grade system to a numeric score out of 5. This change is intended to increase accuracy and consistency between reviews.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” opens with a recap of the two previous films, which appear before fading away to leave the words “rise,” “dawn” and “war” onscreen — a self-aware acknowledgment that this concludes one of the greatest sci-fi trilogies of all time. Even 20th Century Fox’s theme music was reworked for the occasion, with epic drums imitating the logo’s traditional fanfare. This isn’t your average blockbuster trilogy, as everyone involved in the production knows.

“War” has every right to be confident — it is the best trilogy finale since “Toy Story 3,” maybe even since “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” Like both of these films, “War” is eminently Oscar-worthy, from Andy Serkis’ raw, emotional performance to Matt Reeves’ character-focused directing.

“War” plunges Caesar to crushing lows, pitting him against the ruthless, unnamed Colonel (Woody Harrelson). We’ve never seen Caesar emote such pain; he is, for the first time, fully confronted by the possibility that he isn’t fit to lead his apes.

There’s a palpable sadness that follows Caesar throughout this film — a true credit to Serkis’ pioneering work in motion capture. In a just world, Andy Serkis would have been nominated for best actor a long time ago, but if this reprisal of Caesar fails to garner a nomination, it will be an atrocity.

The Academy’s proclivity for overlooking nontraditional roles aside, it will be impossible to ignore the film’s razor-sharp development of theme. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” — the trilogy’s second entry — was a Shakespearean tale of power and betrayal, so to top it, “War” is a biblical epic. As a result, the film takes thematic inspiration from Charlton Heston classics such as “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments” — fitting, because the “Planet of the Apes” franchise began in 1968 with Heston in the leading role.

Yet “War” doesn’t proselytize to viewers so much as it shakes them to the core. There are literal crucifixions in this film, and Caesar is crushed by the sight of them. We’ve been following his journey for three films, and Caesar’s extraordinary pain feels acutely like our own.

Aside from using religious overtones to establish pathos, the film also uses them to strengthen its characters. In a cinematic landscape where blockbuster villains are unilaterally forgettable, Harrelson defies the norm as a false prophet who becomes truly threatening when he is convinced of his own divine right. Harrelson is fascinating and imposing, and he gives the character a dash of Colonel Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now” for good measure.

Of course, the film’s powerful themes and characters are a credit to writer and director Matt Reeves and his co-screenwriter Mark Bomback. Aside from developing an epic of biblical scale, the duo craft a film that is bleak as hell, yet not overly depressing. Moments of brightness punctuate the darkness — especially through this film’s comedic relief, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). When the doom and gloom seems heaviest, Bad Ape (don’t worry, he’s one of the good guys) elicits laughs that aren’t jarring. By striking the perfect ratio of grimness and humor, Reeves emphatically declares himself as the ideal choice for the upcoming “The Batman.”

There is an elegance to Reeves’ action, too. In the opening battle scene, Reeves gives us boots-on-the-ground action, but doesn’t indulge in it. Before long, he cuts to an overhead tracking shot that effectively and efficiently depicts both the scope and brutality of the scene.

Even though Reeves’ action is compelling, he doesn’t saturate the film with overlong battle sequences. In fact, despite the title, there’s no all-out war to be seen. There are epic skirmishes but the final confrontation between Caesar and the Colonel is a personal one, driven by character, not empty spectacle. It’s a third act predicated on quiet emotional payoffs, when most modern blockbusters are content to haphazardly add CGI chaos in post-production.

This “Planet of the Apes” trilogy combines the technological marvels of modern blockbusters with stories that are guaranteed to resonate with audiences who revisit them years from now. “War” reminds us how strange it is to witness history, but also how wonderful it can be.

Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].