It's a rare but beautiful thing for a trilogy of films to start with a strong entry and increase in quality as each new addition rolls out. For 20th Century's Fox's rebooted Planet of the Apes saga starring Andy Serkis as ape leader Caesar, this rare occurrence is gloriously realized.
The apes are about to take over the world, one box office ticket at a time. Kicking off with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, the rebooted saga was off to brilliant start as Caesar became the protagonist, proving an ape can be the protagonist of the franchise and human characters can come and go. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes arrived in 2014, replacing all of the cast members portraying human roles and introducing an ape versus ape feud. Now, War for the Planet of the Apes rolls around, introducing a final battle not only for the planet itself but for humanity, in general.
War for the Planet of the Apes picks up years after the Dawn ended with a conflict raging between apes and humans, bringing audiences to uncharted corners of the world, introducing a snow-covered climate which becomes a character within itself. In the years which have passed, the Simian virus has conquered much of the world. The abundant conflicts both external and internal for protagonists and antagonists are compelling in themselves.
Humans, feeling threatened, gravitate to a menacing and ruthless Colonel played by franchise newcomer Woody Harrelson. The actor’s chilling performance backs Caesar against a wall, prompting his good will for humanity to be shattered as the ape leader is transformed into an unforgiving survivor. One sequence, completely free of actions, allows Harrelson to truly pull the curtain back on his character's dark mentality, delivering a chilling monologue as the Apes franchise flexes its muscles with a brutal villain.
Director Matt Reeves does thrust the heroes into a dark and desperate time, but balances the tones of the film by injecting small touches of humor with Steve Zahn’s lovable new Bad Ape character. And, in a year of young girls becoming standouts (see: Dafne Keen in Logan), Amiah Miller is introduced as the franchise’s Nova, a human incapable of speaking but saying more than enough through facial expressions.
For the first time, a human character might return for a sequel in the rebooted Apes franchise, and this young actress is perfect for the job.
At no point does War miss a beat. It is brilliantly paced. Breaking down the heroic characters, forcing audiences to watch them at their lowest as they are bullied and humbled by a clearly evil enemy can be a risk. However, with risk, there is often reward, if well executed. War certainly pushes its apes to the brink of extinction, providing the highest of stakes and relying on its director and lead actor to take control of such a move. Together, they create a compelling and emotional masterpiece.
This is why it is Andy Serkis who deserves endless praise for his work. Though unrecognizable as Caesar courtesy of better-than-ever CGI plastered onto his motion capture performance, the actor delivers an emotional achievement more than worthy of discussion come Oscar season. In fact, Serkis makes his character the most human of all while the world around him has introduced higher-than-ever stakes which relentlessly remind the characters and audiences watching them how important or costly every move Caesar makes can be.
Allowing Caesar to let loose, shedding his humanity for brief moments in the wake of unthinkable tragedy, showcases the depth of the emotional spectrum in the Apes saga. The film kicks off with an epic action sequence before becoming an intimate conflict for the ape leader whose relentless proposals for peace are obstructed by power-hungry humans.
War for the Planet of the Apes can serve as a brilliant finale to Caesar’s story which began with a James Franco character more than half of a decade ago or a source of brand new life for 20th Century Fox’s most consistent franchise -- or both.
Topping it all off is Michael Giacchino bringing every bit of genius musical composition he poured into Lost, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and other iconic projects to deliver some of his best notes yet.
War for the Planet of the Apes is the best entry into an already impressive and brilliant Apes trilogy. Telling a bold, gritty, and emotional tale with a slew of new characters helping shape Caesar's journey, War for the Planet of the Apes gets 5 out of 5 stars.
Photo Credit: Chernin Entertainment