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“War for the Planet of the Apes” Movie Review

About 20 minutes into “War for the Planet of the Apes,” director Matt Reeves’s follow-up to his own “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” a woman started crying behind me in the theater. And she didn’t stop until the credits rolled. There’s a depth of feeling here that I don’t often find in any movie, let alone one that cost roughly $150 million.

It’s been years since the events of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” where man’s hubris – as it is wont to do in science fiction – bit him in the ass. A drug intended to cure Alzheimer’s went viral and proved fatal to man but enhanced the intelligence of apes, most notably Caesar (Andy Serkis). In the sequel, “Dawn,” we learned that most of the human population had been wiped out, and a tenuous peace between man and ape shattered when Koba (Toby Kebbell), one of Caesar’s top lieutenants, ignited a conflict.

“War” opens as human soldiers attack an ape outpost in the woods of northern California. After a particularly brutal skirmish, Caesar commands his apes to head east, while he sets out to avenge those lost. He’s joined by Rocket (Terry Notary), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval). During their journey, they stumble upon a young girl (Amiah Miller) and Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). Not long after finding the human base, Caesar is captured by a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson). The man tells him that theirs is a holy war, one that will decide the fate of the planet. Will it belong to the humans or the apes?

The film itself is part biblical epic. One of my favorite shots, the moment I knew I was all in, comes during the opening battle. We watch overhead as the men fire on the apes and the apes launch spears in return. The camerawork moves slowly and smoothly despite the chaos below. It’s as though ours is the disapproving and sorrowful gaze of a higher power. Caesar himself acts as both a Christ and Moses-like figure.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” Movie Review

It’s become fashionable for blockbusters to tread in darker and grittier waters. Think of your Dark Knights, your Bourne trilogies, etc. Still, this is a breathtakingly bleak film with apes being whipped and strung up on crosses. It’s pervasively drizzly and snowy. Cinematographer Michael Seresin permeates his images with drab browns, grays, and blues.

Still, there’s grace and humor to be found. When you first meet Bad Ape, you might have flashbacks to something like Dobby from the Harry Potter series – broadly comic computer-generated characters that derail the movie whenever they’re on screen. But Zahn imbues Bad Ape with the kind of humanity you’ve come to expect from his live action roles, even when he is playing a dimmer bulb. There’s also a wonderfully tender scene where Maurice, in a series of stark close-ups, learns that the young girl they’ve discovered can’t speak.

One of the technological advances on “Dawn” involved being able to shoot actors in motion capture suits while performing in real environments as opposed to a sound stage. It lent the film an authenticity and made the effects feel especially tactile. That strategy is used here as well. A cavalry of apes thunders out of the fog on horseback, like something out of “Seven Samurai.” Caesar and his friends ride along expansive coastal vistas. You don’t often see films successfully pull off this vast scale while maintaining an intimate understanding of their characters.

Speaking of characters, the lifeblood of this trilogy has been and remains Andy Serkis as Caesar. Film fans, of course, know Serkis from his motion capture work on Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings.” Throughout “War,” Caesar wrestles with whether or not he’ll succumb to his bloodthirsty impulses. There’s a subtlety to Serkis’s portrayal that’s, again, uncommon in computer enhanced performances. (Props as well to Weta Digital for their technical wizardry.) The way he shifts his eyes or sets his jaw communicates so much. I’m thinking in particular about the look on his face as he’s put in a cage at the Colonel’s base. No words are needed.

Composer Michael Giacchino, who previously worked with Reeves on “Dawn,” does his fair share of the emotional heavy lifting as well. This is his best score in years. It combines the disjointed percussive music that Jerry Goldsmith brought to the original film along with Giacchino’s own penchant for writing simple yet impactful melodies. To fans of the composer’s work on “Up,” I’m not saying “War” has a piano motif that’ll hit you with the full force of something like “Married Life.” I’m just saying it may come damn close.

It’s easy to be cynical about Hollywood. Mid-level productions squeezed by a parade of reboots, sequels, and prequels, most of which have the stink of being passionless cash grabs. And frankly, I was skeptical when 20th Century Fox announced their re-imagining of “Planet of the Apes.” But this is a franchise that extinguishes any misgivings about the current movie marketplace. These are thoughtful and entertaining films endowed with artistry and humanity. And “War for the Planet of the Apes” is that rare third entry that actually tops its predecessor.

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Garrett is an entertainment professional living in the Los Angeles area. In his free time, he's a shark hunter, Jedi Knight, Kaiju wrangler and dog owner. He also edits and contributes to movie discussions at 3byThree.

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11 thoughts on ““War for the Planet of the Apes” Movie Review

  1. I hope I’ll be able to see this. I’ve mostly loved the series so far. It’s a rare one that I’ve actually seen almost all the entries of. In fact, the only one I’m missing is the genuine original. I’m glad they haven’t managed to screw it up yet.

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  2. I saw this last Friday night and I thought it was good; not great, but good. It felt like a mashup of old westerns and Apocalypse Now, with Woody Harrelson doing his best Brando impression and Serkis doing a kind of Clint Eastwood pastiche. The one thing I was a little annoyed by was that at one point the apes are traveling through a tunnel and you see some graffiti that says “Ape-pocalypse Now”; it’s like, guys, we get that you’re doing an Apocalypse Now homage, you don’t need to literally underline it in the movie.

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  3. The original series was fairly cheezy, but it’s among the last things was got from Rod Serling. It was great drive-in fodder. It’s part of the Joe Bob Briggs pantheon, from back when Texas was still part of the US.

    Nobody could over modulate a performance like Charlton Heston. It’s from a period when the movie industry was at a nadir, and it shows. Even then, the budget was just about fatal to the project. Even more interesting, that was sort of known at the time even through three TV channels.

    I quite frankly do not like the first entry into the series and am unlikely to watch any more of it. The characterizations in the new series do not work for me in the same way that Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter inhabited Cornelius and Zira.I can’t root for the apes without being outright misanthropic.

    The original also seems like it was a ham-handed attempt at a statement on racism, with the usual clumsiness of Silent Generation statements on racism. At least they tried. If the apes are too ape-ey and accurate in a CGI way, then that turns into misanthropy. That’s a hard thing to overcome.

    It also lacks the zest that JJ Abrams brought to the 2009 Star Trek reboot.

    This being said, Woody Harrelson’s character seems compelling.

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    • I’m not a huge fan of the original series, though I’d like to re-visit the very first one. (I do love Rod Serling.) I think you’re certainly on to something when you say the low budget was a liability.

      I have seen a couple folks address the misanthropy of the new series. It was either the writer for the LA Times or NY Times who said, of this latest entry, “It’ll make you root against your own species.” Though he was a fan of the film.

      Thanks for reading!

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      • On the budget – the original is claimed at $10M , which was outrageous at the time. It was trimmed to about half that. It was a *high* budget picture for the late 1960s. That was the existential crisis of it.

        Contrast it with a roughly concurrent offering, “A Clockwork Orange” which was made for $2.2M. According to Scorcese’s “Personal Journey”, this period marked a real low point for the industry, until “Jaws” … rebooted release strategies and budgets. Even then, Heaven’s Gate in 1980 sunk $44m and returned $1.5 and took entire studios out.

        The original was just about state of the art – especially the prosthetics – for the time. And I’m not kidding about seeing it at a drive-in. It’s the right venue for that movie :)

        Sci fi filmmaking didn’t really hit its stride until 1979s “Alien”. The new franchise is clearly visually superior to the original, and people with skills like like Andy Serkis possesses just didn’t *exist* then because of no CGI. So on any measurable front, the reboot is *probably* superior.

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