In this era of remakes and reboots and other words to describe digging up long-dormant franchises, the revival of "Planet of the Apes" has turned out to be one of the best surprises. It would have been so easy for things to go wrong with these movies: they could have been too silly, they could have taken themselves too seriously and become unintentionally silly, the special effects could have been unconvincing, the special effects could have been so convincing that they fell into the Uncanny Valley. And yet, the right balance has been found at every turn, first with "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011) and then with "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (2014). Now comes "War for the Planet of the Apes," and it deserves a place of honor alongside the other two as an emotionally-investing film that happens to have a CGI ape as its main character.
The key to the movie is, as always, the motion-capture performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar, the leader of the apes. Early scenes have Caesar as you would expect to see him: angry and brutal, but also wise and merciful. It's fine, Serkis clearly hasn't lost his touch. But then Caesar goes through some hardships and Serkis has to give the character all these touches where he's blinded by rage but he still wants to be wise and he's worried that he's letting down his family and maybe he's turning into a monster and he's disgusted with himself. Things sure aren't easy for Caesar, but Serkis is up to the challenge.
Unlike "Dawn," where I could never get into the Jason Clarke or Gary Oldman characters, this time Caesar is complemented by a formidable human character in Woody Harrelson's Col. McCullough. McCullough shaves his head and is a military leader who needs to be dealt with by his own military, so comparisons to Marlon Brando in "Apocalypse Now" are inevitable. McCullough has made the ultimate sacrifice for what he considers the good of humanity, and his reward is that he now must go to war... with the rest of humanity. At one point, he says the opposing army is made up of "everybody" and I believe him.
McCullough keeps the apes imprisoned at a camp where he needs them to build a wall for an upcoming siege. At least that's the movie's explanation for why he doesn't just kill them. Frankly I don't think it lines up with his motives, but this movie really wants to have a "Great Escape"-like prison camp atmosphere, and that's its excuse. Actually, it wants to be a prisoner-of-war movie more than it wants to be a war movie. The "War for the Planet of the Apes" that we're promised is a one-sided battle that mostly involves humans while the apes try to hide and avoid crossfire. The apes' only contribution is that they try to end things early for the overdogs so they don't get obliterated in the chaos.
The action isn't so great in the latter half of "War for the Planet of the Apes," and neither is any character that isn't Caesar or McCullough. A cowardly comic relief ape played by Steve Zahn is exactly the kind of forced silliness that this movie didn't need, and a sweet little mute girl played by Amiah Miller pales in comparison to her "Logan" and even "Transformers" counterparts. But this movie is capable of great things when the focus is on Caesar and McCullough, and fortunately it's on them a lot, especially Caesar. The 2010's version of the "Planet of the Apes" series has been consistently impressive, now let's see it be impressive one more time and resist the temptation to force a fourth movie after this satisfying conclusion to an ambitious trilogy.
Two and a Half Stars out of Five.
"War for the Planet of the Apes" is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images. Its running time is 140 minutes.
Contact Bob Garver at firstname.lastname@example.org.