At first glance, “War for the Planet of the Apes” doesn’t resemble a modern war movie. Where most films of the genre trade in bloody action and bountiful shots of brawny men shouting at each other, the final chapter in the “Apes” reboot trilogy is quiet. Contemplative even. Entire sequences pass without a single word of dialogue. Large scale battle scenes are few and far between, replaced by moving character drama, nuanced acting and Biblical allegory. It’s full of brutally intense scenes, of course, but it’s far more interested in the effects of war than the fighting of the war itself. At its core, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a story about hate, and for a trilogy that has always used characters discovering their humanity to tell stories of mankind’s flaws, it’s a nearly perfect ending.
“War” picks up some time after “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” ended with the beginning of a conflict between the sentient apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) and the United States military. Caesar is struggling to manage the balancing act between protecting his people and maintaining hope for peace, but after an unspeakable tragedy, he embarks on a mission to assassinate the military leader responsible, a man known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson, “The Edge of Seventeen”).
It almost goes without saying that Serkis is perfect as Caesar. The man is practically synonymous with Oscar-caliber motion-capture work, and his performance in “War for the Planet of the Apes” is no exception. In his first shot alone, Serkis wordlessly communicates Caesar’s weariness with the war for the humans but resolve to fight for his people. Every moment he is on screen, he seems to be shouldering a load that only grows heavier as the story wears on. There isn’t a single scene that he doesn’t absolutely own, though Steve Zahn (“Captain Fantastic”) bears mentioning as the delightful newcomer, Bad Ape.
The same praise goes for the effects that work with Serkis to bring Caesar to life. They’re far beyond anything we’ve seen on the big screen. The faith that director Matt Reeves (“Let Me In”) puts in these effects and his performers is obvious. Dialogue scenes — usually involving a fair bit of American Sign Language — are shot almost exclusively in close-ups to take in the subtlety of the acting and the breathtaking quality of the CGI. It’s perfect synergy between actor, director and effects artists, almost unparalleled in modern blockbusters.
All of this is put to work in a deeply human story about hate that casts humanity in the role of the villains. The new “Apes” films have always been about prejudice, and “War” finds those feelings finally reaching and threatening to consume Caesar. The journey that he goes on that finds him fighting those feelings is spellbinding and lends further credence to the argument that the character ranks as one of the best film protagonists of the decade. For all his film’s epic ambitions, Reeves never loses sight of the personal nature of the story as it relates to his lead.
But for all its exemplary acting, effects and direction, the most shocking thing about “War” is still how little it resembles a modern war movie. In fact, the whole thing functions as an extended metaphor for the biblical book of Exodus, leading to a movie that resembles Cecil B. Demille’s “The Ten Commandments” more than any war movie released in the last decade. From Caesar’s struggle to lead his people out of captivity to the hard-hearted tyrant at the heart of the conflict, the imagery is obvious but never forced.
“War” is a rare class of film no matter how it’s viewed. As a war movie, it bucks convention with its slow pacing and intimate plot. As a modern blockbuster, it does the same with its focus on flooring performances and intelligent script. As the third chapter in a trilogy, it isn’t just good; it’s a masterclass in character-based storytelling. As the credits roll not just on the movie, but on the trilogy, there should be no doubt that the rebooted “Apes” franchise ranks as one of the best of all time.