REVIEW: “War for the Planet of the Apes”

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You would be tempted to call it the anti-blockbuster franchise if it wasn’t made up of three sure-fire blockbusters. Still it’s a label that seems to fit the newest “Planet of the Apes” prequel/reboot series. It has all the big budget bells and whistles yet there is clearly more going on underneath the blockbustery surface and it’s not hard to recognize its attempts at more provocative explorations.

Despite the rousing critical praise (for the most part) it has received, my relationship with the series is a weird one. Both of the previous films, 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, are really good movies that have their own nagging missteps. But despite their issues, each film had its hooks in me enough to leave me genuinely excited for its follow-up. So that brings me to the latest installment that continues the Caesar trilogy and the trend of awkward movie titles – “War for the Planet of the Apes”.

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For some (unfortunately), how condemning or forgiving they are may depend on which political magnifying glass they choose to look through (yes, I’ve actually seen this ). Much like the previous two films, “War” has statements it wants to make. And much like the previous films, those statements are often thought-provoking and occasionally a tad heavy-handed. But messaging has never been the problem. Instead it was a handful of story angles that would sometimes trip them up. Nothing major, but they are there. For the most part “War” rights those issues.

“Dawn” ends with Caesar, the leader of the ape clan, acknowledging that war with the humans is all but inevitable. “War” begins with an explosive sequence revealing Caesar’s prophecy to be true. Troops from a military group calling themselves Alpha-Omega launch a sneak attack on an ape base in the forest. Returning director Matt Reeves’ staging of this sequence is exquisite. It’s beautifully shot and incredible to watch. There is also a lot of information we can glean concerning what’s to come.

Tired of the heavy casualties, Caesar (magically played by a returning Andy Serkis) moves from revolutionary to Moses figure and agrees to lead the apes out of the forest and to an isolated spot across the desert. Before they can leave they are hit by Apha-Omega and Caesar has a face-to-face with their leader Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson). The attack is repelled, but for Caesar the results are intensely personal. He commands his clan to head for the desert while he seeks revenge, accompanied only by three of his most loyal (and insistent) friends.

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It’s here that “War” really hits its stride. The group’s effort to track down McCullough leads them north where they encounter several characters both human and simian. None are better than Steve Zahn who plays Bad Ape, a chimpanzee who lived in the Sierra Zoo prior to the Simian Flu outbreak. Zahn does a lot of interesting things both comically and dramatically. It’s a well-balanced character and performance that never pushes the ‘comic relief’ role too far.

Staying with performances, it has taken time for many people to warm up to Andy Serkis’ style of acting, but by now his unique skills as an actor should be beyond doubt. There is simply no one better at what he does. This is evident by his work in “War” which is the pinnacle of everthing he has done in the Caesar role. It’s Oscar caliber stuff. If only the Academy will take notice.

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The story pulls its influences from a wild assortment of films. Early resemblances to old school westerns like “The Outlaw Josey Wales” give way to shades of “The Great Escape” once the film shifts to what is essentially a prison movie. This is also where it loses a bit of its momentum and stretches out about fifteen minutes too long. Allusions to the Holocaust and concentration camps are effective yet it’s a fairly dramatic shift that takes too much time to develop and play out. And back to influences, it doesn’t take much of an eye to notice the similarities between Harrelsen’s McCullough and Brando’s Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now”.

“War” finally gets back on its feet and the pulse-pounding finale feels just right. The film ends with the story and franchise in strong place. Of course it won’t stay there. Another film is already said to be in the works. As for this installment, I feel it’s the best of this new series and despite its lag in the middle it avoids the narrative hiccups from the past film. More importantly it does justice to this central character who we’ve spent so much time with and genuinely care about.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

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28 thoughts on “REVIEW: “War for the Planet of the Apes”

  1. “The story pulls its influences from a wild assortment of films.” – it’s always so satisfying when a modern blockbuster (anti-blockbuster) can do that.

    Very good review.

    Have you watched the original film, by the way? I haven’t…

    • Thanks so much. I agree with you on the influence thing. As for the original film, oh yes, I’ve seen it a few times. It was one I first saw as a kid and was a bit mesmerized by it. It some ways it hasn’t aged well, but I still have a real fondness for it.

      • Interesting. I’ve only seen Burton’s version as a teen (I guess you’re older than me, I’m 28) and it prevented me from thinking about the apes for a while…

      • Oh wow. Well Star Wars and Alien instantly grab the top two spots for me. Close Encounters, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Omega Man are also good.

        I shooting a blank on Worst but I will say this (and it’s generally unpopular), I really dislike A Clockwork Orange.

      • Well, Alien & Star Wars don’t count ha-ha but Body Snatchers and Omega Man yes! I’ve seen only the ’56 version and it was just incredible. I’ll definitely watch Omega Man. Thanks for the tip.

        Clockwork Orange is a pretty harsh movie, so I can understand that. A lot of Kubrick’s works were difficult.

      • I love the original Body Snatchers but I think the remake is quite good as well. There are several 70’s sci-fi films I haven’t seen. I watched many more from the 80’s and found myself really loving the wave of 50’s sci-fi.

      • So many I like from the 50’s -cheesiness and all. Them, The Thing From Another World, It Came From Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, It!. I could go on and on.

  2. Cool review, you’ve made a lot nice points. I’ve actually only seen the first movie in this trilogy, so I’ve got some catching up to do. Seems like it will be worth it though.

    • I think it’s definitely worth your time to watch the last two films. Caesar becomes much more of the centerpiece and Serkis is simply stunning.

  3. I’ve really been impressed with these films. A large part of that is due to Andy Serkis and the character he’s developed. But also I find it to be one of the most brilliant allegories of our time. High praise? Yeah maybe even too high, but the combination of the amazing CGI and the emotional component (which I really think the latter is more contingent on the former than a lot of people give it credit for), really make this ability to connect to the apes a unique experience.

    I’m also really hoping that they do NOT extend this series, I think they left it at a very good place here and feel like with only a few extenuating circumstances, trilogies are hard enough to make solid on their own — let alone . . . serials.

    • Great point. In the CGI and motion capture work wasn’t so strong this could have easily failed. It could be more of a distraction than an emotional connection. But man they nail it. Incredible effects and Serkis is brilliant.

      I’m with you. I hope they leave the series alone but it sounds like more films are coming. Studios simply can’t turn down a buck in these franchise-driven movie days.

  4. Great review! This movie was every thing I wanted it to be, I’ve really been in love with this franchise, especially with the last two films. If they don’t get that VFX Oscar, there’s going to be a problem. lol

  5. Great stuff Keith! Glad you enjoyed this one, mixed relationship you have with the franchise and all. I really enjoyed this installment, thought it was strong and well worth a watch. Love these movies, and after watching it I just wanted to go home and start them all again.

    • It’s funny, after watching this one I did go home and rewatch the first two. Actually enjoyed them more than the first time. Really good trilogy.

    • Thanks for the great comments. I found this one to be a very satisfying conclusion. For me it lacked the predictability of the second film but it does lag a bit as it tries to convey that imagery. Still, I’m a big fan.

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