Apes. Together. Strong. Those words have served as the personal creed of benevolent ape leader Caesar since he first gained sentience in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He knows that in order for his species to survive in this new world, they must put the needs of the group above all else. In War for the Planet of the Apes, the third and potentially last film in this groundbreaking franchise, Caesar’s personal emotions are at odds with his motto, and this internal struggle is as big a battle as the military conflict he is waging against the last remaining humans.
A few years after the events of 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his clan are still defending themselves from an army of short-sighted humans who, despite Caesar’s efforts to broker peace, believe that their only way forward is to wipe out the apes for good. Making matters worse is the fact that a number of apes loyal to the traitorous Koba have joined up with the humans in the fight. Knowing that his clan can’t match their opponent’s firepower, Caesar convinces the apes to retreat to the east, across the desert to safety. But when one last raid by the humans, led by their ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson), leads to tragic losses, Caesar decides to personally hit back and get his revenge no matter the cost.
As if you would expect anything else, Andy Serkis once again delivers an outstanding performance as Caesar. Serkis is Caesar, and anyone who argues that they add all of the character’s emotion in post is a fool. Call it a hot take, but I think this has to be the year that Serkis gets some sort of awards recognition, if not an acting nomination then at least a Special Achievement statue (which hasn’t been given out at the Oscars since Toy Story received it in 1995). Equally deserving are the other ape actors: Karin Konoval as Maurice the orangutan, Terry Notary as Caesar’s right hand man Rocket, and Steve Zahn who injects some needed levity into the proceedings as Bad Ape, a former resident of the Sierra Safari Zoo who helps Caesar in his mission (in his own offbeat way).
The behind the scenes team should be praised for their work as well. Adhering to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra, returning director Matt Reeves kept most of his Dawn crew intact and it paid off in spades. This is the fourth of Reeves’s films that Michael Giacchino has scored, and the in-demand composer’s restrained work brings warmth to the film’s quieter moments. The swaths of forest are beautifully framed by cinematographer Michael Seresin, who also crafts stunning shots of the film’s other settings including snow-capped mountains and beaches bathed in warm sunlight. Seeing as the first two films featured heavily in the San Francicso redwoods, it was nice to visit some other locales for a change.
This summer has been particularly bad for sequels, but War for the Planet of the Apes maintains the level of quality set by the previous films, and maybe even outdoes it. If the franchise ends as a trilogy, it is going out on the highest of notes.
Reviewed by Kyle Miller.