Fox’s Planet of the Apes reboot has proven to be the best, smartest franchise since Christopher Nolan completed his Dark Knight trilogy in 2012. And like The Dark Knight Rises, War for the Planet of the Apes is a grand, ambitious final chapter that doesn’t entirely stick the landing. The disappointment isn’t overwhelming, though: This closing act maintains the series’ somber, thoughtful tone and its insistence on delivering widescreen spectacle with an emotional undercurrent. War can’t top 2014’s magnificent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, instead extending and repeating some of its thematic thrust. If there’s any letdown, it’s only because this franchise has trained us to expect greatness, whereas this new sequel merely peaks at pretty good.
Taking place two years after the events of Dawn, War is even more ape-centric than the previous installment. On the run from a band of elite human soldiers, Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads his tribe deep into the forest, but soon they’re attacked by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), whose heavily armed forces wipe out a large swath of the apes, including Caesar’s beloved son. Vowing vengeance but also wanting to protect the others, Caesar sends the rest of the monkeys to a remote desert while he goes after McCullough. But Caesar’s closest allies, including Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary), refuse to let him go alone, accompanying him to find McCullough’s compound.
War shares the same creative team as Dawn—it’s directed by Matt Reeves and co-written by him and Mark Bomback. And there are surprises in store for Caesar and the audience, which shouldn’t be spoiled. But along the way, the apes stumble upon another talking chimp, known simply as Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), and a mute young girl named Nova (Amiah Miller), who seems to have been abandoned. Caesar reluctantly brings her along, which turns out to be a wise move since she becomes a clue to the future of the human race.
In ways both subtle and not, War aspires to the fever-dream majesty of Apocalypse Now, putting Caesar on a collision course down a metaphorical river with his own personal Kurtz. Bathed in moody low light and sporting a shaved head and ominous eyes, McCullough has the twitchy megalomania of Marlon Brando’s iconic character, except he isn’t quite as deranged. At least not yet. When Caesar and his troops arrive at the compound, they discover that their fellow apes have been captured and reduced to slaves, being forced to work hard labor to fortify the base’s defenses. Sadistic and vindictive, McCullough has his reasons for brutalizing Caesar’s kind, but Harrelson enjoys letting his portrayal walk a knife’s edge between disturbing and slightly hammy. The colonel may be going insane, but he plans on going in style.
Harrelson’s performance is one of the elements that keeps War from being as titanic as it could have been. Dawn also featured a showdown between Caesar and a driven human leader, although Gary Oldman was far more restrained in the role. That moderation fit with Dawn’s mournful tone—it was the first movie in the series to show the full impact of Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ devastating killer virus—and so the performances were understandably haunted and muted, as if all the characters were still shell-shocked by the tragedy.
War may share Dawn’s grim aura, but where Dawn was a typical second installment—darker and more despairing—the new film has the familiar feel of the last chapter in a trilogy: It swings for the fences, trying to end the franchise with a flourish. As such, McCullough has been conceived for maximum dramatic grandeur, but neither the writing nor Harrelson’s portrayal entirely justifies the buildup. Despite his furrowed-brow intensity and scene-chewing gusto, Harrelson can’t convey the same gravitas that Serkis effortlessly provides in a superb motion-capture performance as Caesar. For all of War’s insistence that this is the epic, final confrontation between ape and human, the emotional stakes are uneven because, as ruthless as McCullough seems, he never quite comes across as emblematic of humanity’s worst or most primal tendencies.
Still, War remains a technical marvel, making the myriad ape characters feel wholly organic. In 2011, Rise’s chimp technology was impressive, even startling, but six years later one could almost take the mo-cap wonders for granted. And along with the stellar effects work, Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin have crafted an action-adventure with a stark atmosphere of unease permeating every scene.
Modern cinema has no shortage of post-apocalyptic landscapes, but the Apes films—particularly, Dawn and War—are unique in that they hang heavy with despair and regret. In large part, that’s because of Dawn’s sobering message of how warring cultures occasionally find common ground in order to forge a peace—only to have those good intentions thwarted by distrust and poisonous self-interest. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, War resides in the shadow of Dawn’s achievement, just as Caesar and his fellow apes are trapped in the bleak aftermath of the previous movie’s unfulfilled truce between chimp and man.
The Caesar we meet in War has lost much of the sympathetic outlook he still possessed in Dawn, and after his son’s murder, he threatens to become as violent and merciless as Koba (played by Toby Kebbell), the combative ape that betrayed him in Dawn and paid with his life. In this new film, Koba appears to Caesar in nightmares and hallucinations, serving as a dark specter for what he could become if he loses his moral compass. It’s a bluntly effective if not altogether eloquent illustration of Caesar’s ongoing inner battle, one that was expressed more pointedly in Dawn.
Other such nitpicks present themselves in War. Bad Ape becomes an unfortunate bit of comedic relief that upsets the film’s solemn, stirring tone. Certain characters are utilized simply to manipulate the audience’s emotions. And as good as they are, there isn’t an action sequence in War that’s as startling and innovative as in the previous two films. Even the movie’s provocative notions regarding tribalism, survival and blind obedience—all finely rendered—don’t have the same sting as they once did.
What we’re left with in War for the Planet of the Apes is an absorbing, intelligent finale. The film builds to an ending that, although not particularly surprising, feels appropriate—even inevitable—considering all that’s come before. When Rise of the Planet of the Apes hit theaters in the late summer of 2011, it suggested a franchise in which humanity—flawed, noble, susceptible to its worst tendencies but trying to live up to its highest ideals—would eventually find itself under attack by an enemy of its own making. But rather than suggesting that apes deserve to overthrow us, this series has instead wondered if there’s something inherently broken about the way communities operate that will always endanger their well-being. Caesar was raised by humans who loved him but didn’t understand him. The slow-motion tragedy of War is that Caesar has struggled to reconcile his simian essence with the emotional complexity of the people he’s encountered. He’s the embodiment of what may supplant us—but, poignantly, in the end he may be too much like us to find a peaceful resolution. The real war is going on within him.
Director: Matt Reeves
Writers: Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer, Terry Notary, Toby Kebbell
Release Date: July 14, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.