War for the Planet of the Apes (Movie Review)

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

PLOT: After suffering a very personal loss, Caesar embarks on a perilous quest to put an end to the leader of a human army, an uncompromising Colonel who wants to see every last ape eliminated.

REVIEW: I feel like we say this with every new APES movie, but the visual effects of this series have gotten so masterful that there’s almost nowhere to go but down from here. If Caesar has been a revelation in the last two films, then wait until you witness the artistry of Bad Ape in WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Utilizing a motion-capture performance from Steve Zahn, Bad Ape is a mind-boggling creation, so thoroughly convincing that your brain truly does forget that it’s watching a digital creation (of course, you’ll have a few moments of marveling at the innovation before that happens). This series has yet to win an Oscar for Visual Effects, and if it does not achieve one for the work on display here, then the fix is truly in.

Of course, the APES movies have more on their mind then blowing you away with their technical wizardry, and WAR is no different. We see a lot of hard work put into the VFX of products that don’t necessarily deserve the effort (the TRANSFORMERS series comes to mind), so it’s truly gratifying to see a movie with such thought-provoking subject matter filled to the brim with the best visual effect work the business can offer. In the middle of summer, it is possible for a studio to release a mega-budget film that is more startling war movie than escapist entertainment.

But WAR isn’t necessarily a war movie, not in the most literal meaning of the word. It’s more of a prisoner-of-war film, with the obvious reference points being THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and PATHS OF GLORY. Not a film for the easily shaken, WAR is the natural culmination of the current APES trilogy, which has been about evolution of one species and the de-evolution of another, and the struggles on both sides to maintain some kind of humanity. This is a film that focuses on anger, revenge, warmongering and xenophobia, and like most of the APES films of the past, it’s a sadly relevant reflection of the landscape we find ourselves in right now. But, of course, fear and hatred are always going to be running amok on the news and outside of our homes, so these films will always feel pertinent.

The events of DAWN have shaped Caesar (Andy Serkis, who projects Caesar’s every emotion with predictable ease) into a sullen but resolute leader of the apes. And the early events of WAR transform him into an angry beast, boiling with aggression for the human race and, in particular, the current face of the species: the Colonel (Woody Harrelson, perfectly cast as an intimidating antagonist), a shrewd military man with zero affinity for his opponent. These two represent their kind and both are rather stern, unforgiving figures, perhaps necessarily. For a large block of the film, Caesar is the Colonel’s captive, and it’s a fairly harrowing sequence of events that see our once-lovable baby ape a tortured prisoner with diminishing resolve. It’s a battle of wills between the Colonel and Caesar, and the movie is so intensely grim that you’re often certain any form of “happy ending” for the ape and his compatriots is impossible. This movie does not kid around; it’s serious and severe and often jarring. Not to mention totally effective.

Director Matt Reeves does offer some light, which is a must thanks to the direness of the events. The aforementioned Bad Ape is an amusing addition who could qualify as comic relief; a nervous sort who’s been pulled into Caesar’s battle, Bad Ape attempts to be the voice of reason in a series of dangerous situations. Zahn’s performance is remarkably expressive. Another new addition is Nova (Amiah Miller), a mute child that Caesar’s kindly friend Maurice (Karen Konoval) picks up on their journey to the Colonel’s camp. Nova slowly but surely brings empathy back into Caesar’s heart. The young actress is very good in the role, and her interactions with Caesar and the rest of the apes are absolutely touching. Maurice is once again a lovable addition, perhaps my favorite character in the entire franchise. (And, naturally, a complete marvel to look at.)

The movie’s length is a bit of a concern; at approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, it’s overlong by perhaps 15 minutes. (Maybe it’s just that there’s only so much of this oppressive atmosphere one can take.) Another complaint is the resolution of a couple of story threads, that I obviously cannot spoil here, but I felt they weren’t quite earned. WAR suffers from some serious deus ex machina moments in the third act that took me out of the proceedings somewhat.

The overall power of the picture softens the edges of these main complaints. As he did with DAWN, Reeves proves himself a deft orchestrator of action and drama; when the film is fixated on the former, it is vivid and extremely well-choreographed. That said, this is more a sober drama than anything else, with a conclusion that is about as bittersweet as they come. It’s an uncompromising vision and a brave one; you can’t walk away thinking you’ve just seen the same old thing. If this is the last of the PLANET OF THE APES films – at least, this series of them – then the creators have forged a very memorable triumph in just about every regard. We humans still have the power to impress.

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Eric Walkuski is a longtime writer, critic, and reporter for JoBlo.com. He's been a contributor for over 15 years, having written dozens of reviews and hundreds of news articles for the site. In addition, he's conducted almost 100 interviews as JoBlo's New York correspondent.