The battle for world domination between evolving apes and declining humans sets the stage for an epic trilogy topper in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the surprisingly touching and endlessly entertaining third and final chapter in the “Planet of the Apes” reboot.
Featuring affecting performances from both the returning cast members (Andy Serkis, Judy Greer, Toby Kebbell, among others) as well as the “Apes” newcomers (Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller), this bold and imaginatively realized sci-fi action drama stands out among the summer’s best big studio releases. With a smart and engaging script whose dramatic punch is as potent as its action scenes, astonishing cinematography from New Zealander Michael Seresin (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”), and masterful direction from “Dawn” director Matt Reeves, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a breathtaking and unforgettable cinematic achievement.
After chronicling the Simian Flu virus that nearly eradicated the human race in “Rise,” and an ape-dominant civilization that degenerated into bloody chaos in “Dawn,” “War for the Planet of the Apes” depicts ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) as he commands his followers deep in the Muir Woods against a human opposition dead-set on rendering the ape population extinct. Led by the ruthless Colonel J. Wesley McCullough (Woody Harrelson), a splinter group of militants hope to eradicate the apes once and for all with a search and destroy mission against Caesar and his remaining followers.
When Caesar suffers a devastating loss at the hands of Colonel McCullough, the experience brings out a dark side he didn’t realize was inside of him, and sets out into the Sierra Mountains on a vengeful mission. With the help of his comrades Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), as well as an escaped zoo chimp (Steve Zahn) and a mute orphan (Amiah Miller), Caesar traverses the frozen mountains in search of the Colonel’s headquarters – a grim death camp called Tower Rock. But upon discovering Tower Rock, complications unsurprisingly arise, leading to one of the most satisfying and action-packed climaxes in recent memory.
With the help of an intelligent script by Mark Bomback, which strikes a chord as much with its dramatic richness as it does with captivating action sequences, Matt Reeves surpasses his work on “Dawn” with a poignant and perfectly paced final chapter. Working once again with “Dawn” cinematographer Michael Seresin, Reeves grounds the film’s action in hauntingly beautiful 65mm imagery, creating a grand scope befitting the monumental material. Adding to the film’s epic scale is the sweeping score by Michael Giacchino, and the intricate production and costume design goes a long way in bringing the post-apocalyptic backdrop brilliantly to life. William Hoy and Stan Salfas also exhibit their superior editing skills by nicely counterbalancing the film’s swift action with the more tender moments.
On top of being a superb piece of summer entertainment, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a prime example of how cutting-edge technology can be used to advance the art of storytelling, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the deeply realistic motion-capture performances. Having fine-tuned his portrayal of Caesar over the course of three films, in “War,” Andy Serkis delivers his most nuanced performance to date, bringing all of his character’s complicated shades to the fore. In fact, all of the motion capture performances are excellent, but the supporting role that stands out for its hilarity and unexpected depth is Steve Zahn as Bad Ape, the vocabulary deficient escaped zoo chimp. For standouts in live-action performances, one need not look beyond the extraordinary Woody Harrelson as the “Apocalypse Now” reminiscent Colonel McCullough, whose portrayal is as haunting for its savageness as it is for its inner turmoil.
An impressive feat of big budget filmmaking, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a fitting finale to the beloved franchise.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images.
Running Time: 140 minutes