The monkey business is somber, brutal and utterly persuasive in this dazzling third entry of a sci-fi series that's only getting better.
The primate Caesar is back—grayer, a little heavier under the eyes, prone to the measured pronouncements of a politician who’s been battle-tested. Notice what he’s not anymore, though: a special effect. This is a sentient being. If the broodingly downbeat War for the Planet of the Apes pulls off one miracle (apart from being a thoughtful piece of summer entertainment), it finally lets us experience this upside-down future universe of talking apes and offended humans without doubting what our eyes see. It feels like a major moment.
Continuing their evolved approach to the tech-heavy Hollywood blockbuster, these new Planet of the Apes movies are bananas: a Darwinian dream come true. They’ve grabbed at a soulfulness that’s different from any other franchise going. You can keep your bare-chested Charlton Heston and those shoddy ’70s-era sequels. None of them, not even the revered 1968 original, had much poetry, apart from that classic final shot on the beach (you know the one, with Lady Liberty).
Today’s Apes wrangler, director and co-writer Matt Reeves (also of Let Me In, the improved 2010 remake of Swedish sad-teen-vamp saga Let the Right One In), has steered the concept into ethically complex territory, beginning with 2014’s second chapter, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. He now tops himself with War for the Planet of the Apes, an epic set 15 years after the outbreak of civilization-killing Simian Flu. It’s a war film, as you’ve already guessed from that title, but not just any war. From the scrawled markings on the human soldiers’ helmets—“Bedtime for Bonzo” and “Monkey Killer”—to their bald, bellicose colonel straight out of Apocalypse Now (Woody Harrelson, channeling his best crazy-eyed Marlon Brando), War rewages the combat of Vietnam, complete with its tangle of self-negating righteousness and mission drift.
Once again our hero is Caesar (Andy Serkis, imparting personality underneath the digital fur in a motion-captured triumph that eclipses even his beloved Gollum), sensitive leader of the apes who suffers a calamitous blow to his family after a sneak attack. His peaceful nature rocked by vengeance, Caesar departs with a small detachment of shaggy aides-de-camp to intercept the humans while his tribe splits for shelter.
Apart from executing the unique trick of having us root for human extinction, War foregrounds a beautiful tension between the savage instinct for retribution and higher restraint—ironically fought within the heart of an animal. The picture is graced with a spooky grandeur: snowy vistas, long-vacated buildings and a starkly forlorn, percussion-heavy orchestral score by Michael Giacchino that harkens back to Jerry Goldsmith’s landmark original. After all that forward momentum, the movie gets slightly bogged down in the machinations of a last-act prison break; a final deferential hat tip to violent Mother Nature feels beside the point. While we’re plunged in the battle, though, the stakes feel higher than ever. Take note, rebooters: This is how you do it.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew