There’s a moment in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) where Caesar and his son Blue Eyes have a conversation by sign language in which Blue Eyes apologizes for following the wrong group of apes. The music score during the scene paired with the genuine look of sincerity that leaped off the screen from Blue Eyes was the most emotional moment of the Planet of the Apes series (1968-present) in a long, long time, probably since the traumatic ending of Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). I’ll warn you, War for the Planet of the Apes has the power to match or go even further with these type of emotional moments. Even though I didn’t start weeping with this one, the screening I was in was only occupied by twenty people, but I heard sniffling all the way through the film, up to the end credits. Now, as far as how I felt about the film, well, after the finish of the final scene, I was asking myself, “Did Matt Reeves pull off the impossible? Did I just see a film that tops the original Planet of the Apes (1968)?” Well, maybe through the course of this review I’ll have my answer.
The plot picks up a couple of years after the events of Dawn in a semi-cheesy opening statement that highlights the titles of the previous films in the trilogy. After a set of attacks from militant humans, Caesar decides it is time to move his highly intelligent ape community of the forests and has them head for a desert. In the meantime, though, Caesar heads off to try and find The Colonel, played by Woody Harrelson, who leads the humans. Along the way he finds a mute human who eventually gets the name of Nova and Bad Ape, played by Steve Zahn. When Caesar finally comes face to face with The Colonel, though, he finds he is full of surprises as a significant battle, both physically and humanitarian speaking, begins.
Okay, I’ll tell you this in advance: the pros of this movie could be an extremely long laundry list, and the cons will be few. So first off, the motion capture work has been fined tuned to the point that within moments of seeing the first apes in the film, I forgot that these are guys wearing the silliest costumes ever and have ping-pong looking balls all over them. No, these legit look like apes that they somehow got to talk and move. Seriously, it will have to be one of the best years in recent memory for visual effects if this film isn’t immediately the top choice to win all the awards for visual effects at the end of the year. I don’t know how you top this. So to go along with that, Andy Serkis, Zahn, Judy Greer, and the other actors who do the motion capture, and I’ll also mention three more key apes whose names you’ll probably don’t know, so I’ll give them their due: Karin Konoval as Maurice the orangutan, Terry Notary as Rocket, a fellow chimpanzee, and Michael Adamthwaite as Luca, a gorilla. All of them do a wonderful job. It’s also one of the most impressive film roles for Woody Harrelson in a while as The Colonel. He’s a dark, dark character who looks like a baddie right from what I’m sure will turn into an iconic moment in film, to a great monologue he gives to Caesar toward the middle of the film. Also good is Amiah Miller as Nova, whose dialogue-free performance is a tough chore, but she does it very well. What’s also great are the nods to the original series, like Nova’s presence, and a few other nice surprises I won’t spoil here, but one of those is Michael Giacchino’s score. There’s moments that reflect the score of the original by Jerry Goldsmith and there’s moments that are fresh and vibrant and percussion heavy, then there’s moments of light piano score that nearly tear-jerking. He also had a terrific score for Spider-Man: Homecoming, which coincidently was released last week, so you get back-to-back Giacchino scores. What works really well about this, too, is the ending. The last moments leave this trilogy in the best place possible. See, 20th Century Fox hasn’t cemented its plans on whether or not there will be more apes films set after this or not, but they leave it in a way where if we don’t get any for a long time, this one is a great one that plants the seeds that will eventually lead to the Charlton Heston days of the original. If they do more and they suck, we can ignore them for the same reason. On top of all that, Reeves makes this the most cinematic of all the recent films. The landscapes look gorgeous, the camera placement is awe-inspiring, and there are moments and images that will stick with you long past the final fade to black.
Now, if I have any complaints, and I have two, I can tell you they don’t drag the movie down enough to start taking points off. First off, there are a couple of brief dream sequences from Caesar that felt very unnecessary. They’re supposed to motivate Caesar’s actions, but they could have been replaced with more moments between Caesar and his companions or just cut out, period, and they wouldn’t have lost anything. Also there’s a moment where the film kind of turns into a P.O.W. movie, and that’s prisoner of war if you’re a millennial, and the film does drag for a moment or two and get a bit repetitive, but soon we get to that wonderfully evil monologue that explains why The Colonel is so ruthless and so devilish, and before I knew it I had forgotten all about those draggy moments.
There is also one thing I can say about this that might come off as a negative, but some might view it as a positive: I have no idea how often I will re-watch this film. There are moments of genuine evil from the humans and The Colonel character and the P.O.W. elements that, for me personally, don’t always equal out to a movie I want to watch once or twice a year. Sure, there are moments of humor, mostly from Bad Ape, that bring levity and keep the movie from being a total slog of darkness and at times depressing material, and while the movie has war in the title and there aren’t many battle scenes, you feel like you’ve been through a war by the end. I think I’ll need another watch before I figure out if this was better than the original Planet of the Apes, and it might not be as re-watchable as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which is a very great film, War for the Planet of the Apes is perhaps the strongest entry in the trilogy and also the darkest, and perfectly fits into the Apes saga, while still being a film that leaves a huge impression, especially on the emotional level.
My rating: 10/10.