As smart, emotionally powerful and well made as they are, the Apes movies of the past six years—Rise, Dawn and now War—have never gotten the love they deserve. Sure, they make boatloads of money. Yep, they have been increasingly well received by fans and critics. But they never earn anywhere near the ink nor the adulation spilled all over, say, Marvel Universe stuff. And that is, frankly, ridiculous. Are the Apes movies just too emotional for today’s moviegoers? Not jokey enough? Fatally lacking in beloved superheroes, spandex, big-name cameos and gung-ho Americanism? War for the Planet of the Apes probably won’t radically break the mold, but it’s still good enough to be one of the summer’s very best movies.
War is squarely and unapologetically on the side of the simians, and its opening sequence sets up things nicely. As cowritten by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves (the latter also directed), the movie begins years past the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, when humankind was reduced to rubble by the simian flu and the apes were in evolutionary ascendance. In an eerie forest, with imagery and characterizations that evoke the chaotic maelstrom of Apocalypse Now, the Alpha-Omega Platoon, headed by ruthless psychotic Colonel Kurtz—oops, sorry, “The Colonel” (Woody Harrelson)—creeps up on a fortified outpost of apes by a waterfall. Wearing green laser light scopes, the Colonel’s soldiers are both human and simian, although the latter are likely captives or turncoats. Either way, they’re marginalized, scapegoated and treated like dirt. When the Colonel’s mission becomes clear, bloodshed erupts. The action is messy and chaotic, blurring the lines between so-called human and animal behavior.
The grim and heartbreaking aftermath of the confrontation sets up a deeply personal revenge narrative between the Colonel and the highly evolved chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis), backed by a small band of marauders. The latter includes the orangutan sage Maurice (Karin Konoval), tough guy Rocket (Terry Notary) and tender-hearted gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). It’s a movie packed with powerful set pieces—escapes, rescues, fights to the death—majestically shot by Michael Seresin and staged in a dazzling panoramic style that recalls the masterworks of director David Lean, especially The Bridge on the River Kwai, and more popcorn-oriented stuff like The Great Escape. And learning from the best work of Lean and his frequent screenplay collaborator Robert Bolt, War rarely loses sight of its characters’ wants and needs.
Serkis as Caesar is part of a technological high-water mark here. But more than that, as an actor, he is an award-worthy wonder. Delivering speeches that could have been written for Spartacus or the great heroes from biblical epics, he conveys pain, grief, gravitas and loss. His scenes with orphaned human girl Nova (Amiah Miller), who joins his troops as a rescue, are nothing short of spectacular in their intimacy and believability. Great acting and mind-melting motion capture now mesh so seamlessly that we completely forget we are empathizing with special effects. Harrelson, too, is terrific in this, playing a monster with a complicated and emotionally gripping backstory. Steve Zahn, as an abused zoo refugee known as “Bad Ape,” is pretty much tasked with being the film’s sole comic relief. His presence is welcome, even if he’s got an uphill battle in this almost relentlessly sad saga.
War for the Planet of the Apes is powerful stuff. Its allusions to race relations, refugees and the perils of isolationism are obvious, and its call for empathy is strong. Its depiction of humankind—broken, non-communicative and easily manipulated by a psychopathic leader—is downright unsettling. Here is entertainment and social commentary done big, bold and razor sharp.