'War for the Planet of the Apes' review: The trilogy's epic conclusion holds nothing back

'War for the Planet of the Apes' is a thrilling end to a groundbreaking trilogy

The third installment of the modern Planet of the Apes reboot series has arrived in theaters, continuing the saga of Caesar and the apes. Read on for our War for the Planet of the Apes review!

There’s never been much uncertainty about where the overarching story in the Planet of the Apes prequel franchise was headed. Even if you weren’t aware of the premise of the original film series, the answer is right there in the title.

And yet, each successive film has has managed to draw audiences closer to that inevitable conclusion in compelling, creative, and occasionally surprising ways, proving that the journey really can be more important than the destination.

If War for the Planet of the Apes is indeed the final leg of that journey, it’s a saga that everyone involved can be proud of, because the third installment of the series offers the most epic, dramatic chapter of the story so far.

Serkis gives his most layered, complicated performance of the entire series so far.

Set 15 years after the release of the virus that ravaged the human species but enhanced the intelligence of apes, War for the Planet of the Apes brings back Dawn of the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Mark Bomback for a tale that picks up in the immediate aftermath of their 2014 film. Having defeated his brutal rival Koba, Caesar and his apes now find themselves dealing with the military unit summoned by the humans that Koba and his followers attacked in that film. Leading that military unit is a cold, calculating soldier known as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who believes himself to be the last line of defense against the eradication of humanity.

Pushed into a war that could decide the fate of both the apes and humans, Caesar is forced to confront his own role in shaping the future of both species.

It’s been only six years since Rise of the Planet of the Apes hit theaters, but in some ways, War for the Planet of the Apes feels several generations past that first, critically praised 2011 film.

The revolutionary performance-capture work by actor Andy Serkis in Rise of the Planet of the Apes was justifiably praised, but his intelligent ape often felt like one computer-generated character amid a sea of human performers. At its core, Rise was as much about rebooting the Planet of the Apes film franchise as it was about proving that all of the nuances of a human actor’s performance could be effectively translated to a digital alter ego.

Six years later, War for the Planet of the Apes fully realizes that proof of concept.

More so than any of the previous Planet of the Apes films, War for the Planet of the Apes makes its human characters secondary to the apes. Where Rise featured a majority human cast of characters and Dawn split the proportions down the middle, War is unashamedly focused on the apes — so much so that when human characters do turn up, they feel intensely foreign to the story’s setting.

Few multi-film narratives have been able to maintain their momentum as well as the modern Planet of the Apes franchise.

The ability to rely so heavily on the apes this time around is a powerful testament to both how far performance-capture technology has come since Rise and how effectively Serkis and the other actors portraying apes have nurtured our emotional investment in their characters. Rooting against your own species has never been easier than it is in this film, and the ease with which War tells a story that puts human characters in supporting roles shows how far both the industry and audiences have come in just a few years.

As Caesar, Serkis gives his most layered, complicated performance of the entire series so far in War, and as he’s done so many times already, he sets a new high mark for performance-capture acting. His is the performance that the entire series orbits around, and when War challenges Serkis to carry the film — all 140 minutes of it — he responds with the sort of performance that would be an automatic Oscar bid if he was playing a human actor.

Serkis’ supporting cast of actors portraying apes also rise to the challenge in War, and their ability to convey complex moments of character development now seems so natural that it’s easy to question whether humans are even necessary in the story at this point.

War for the Planet of the Apes

As the film’s villain, however, Harrelson does a more than adequate job of justifying his presence in the film.

The Zombieland and True Detective actor offers up his own spin on Marlon Brando’s iconic Colonel Kurtz, complete with sinister messiah complex and a willingness to wield the power he’s amassed in unpredictable, terrifying ways. He’s the ideal foil for Caesar at this point in his character’s evolution, as he represents everything Caesar could have become if he followed a different, darker path. To his credit, Harrelson still manages to find the sympathetic anchor point in an otherwise detestable character, and the dynamic between Caesar and The Colonel is infinitely better for it.

Beyond the name and head-shaving similarities of Harrelson’s character to the aforementioned Colonel Kurtz, there are plenty of other Apocalypse Now reference points to be found in War for the Planet of the Apes if you look for them — as well as a long list of other cinematic influences.

War is unashamedly focused on the apes.

Reeves and Bomback, who co-wrote the film, have made no secret of the long list of films they drew from — directly and otherwise — in crafting the film’s screenplay. War for the Planet of the Apes overtly samples from The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai one moment, and classic pursuit westerns like The Searchers in the next, and its critical perspective on the realities of war — both physical and psychological — is the sort that fueled films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon.

Those influences (which also include some powerful biblical symbolism) could have easily fractured the narrative into a mixed bag of cinematic call-outs and external references, but Reeves and Bomback expertly blend the elements together into a story that honors its inspirations instead of simply imitating them. Over the course of the last two installments of the franchise, Reeves and Bomback have effectively turned the Planet of the Apes trilogy into a love letter to dramatic big-screen sagas that see their protagonists rise from humble beginnings, realize their potential as leaders, and ultimately find peace in one way or another.

War for the Planet of the Apes

Accomplishing all of this with a cast of human char.acters is difficult enough, so it’s that much more impressive to see Planet of the Apes team — both behind the camera and in front of it — do it with a story that has increasingly favored its digitally created (but performance-capture derived) characters with each installment. Few multi-film narratives have been able to maintain their momentum as well as the modern Planet of the Apes franchise, and even fewer have been able to do so with such a satisfying conclusion.

Hollywood has churned out more than a few trilogies in the last decade or so, but if War for the Planet of the Apes does indeed provide the concluding chapter to this series, this franchise deserves to be mentioned with the best of them.

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