War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) Review
Apes (and Sequels) Together Strong
Conceptually imagined as a prequel trilogy taking place before the original Planet of the Apes films (and yet somehow a fourth is apparently in the planning stages), these new films have slowly evolved into the best theatrical film franchise of the modern world. While it may not be everyone’s favorite films or the most lucrative, these new Planet of the Apes films are some of the smartest cinematic features being released in theaters today chock full of impeccable storytelling, and strong acting from impressive casts with remarkable special effects and this profound sense of sentimentality that causes you to feel things as a filmgoer and movie fan you don’t feel anywhere else other than with these spectacular films.
War for the Planet of the Apes picks up two years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. While the human population was diminishing in Dawn, it’s the apes that are now seeing their numbers dwindle dangerously low, but the Simian Flu has become a death sentence for surviving humans. Caesar (the extraordinary Andy Serkis) is attempting to find sanctuary for his brethren when a stern and hellbent warmonger known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) attacks Caesar and takes something incredibly dear to him. The Colonel’s only purpose is to wipe out every ape that gets in the way of him killing Caesar once and for all. As Maurice and the other apes continue their plans to uproot themselves from the woods to the desert, Caesar is driven by vengeance only to realize that he and Koba (Toby Kebbell) weren’t so different after all.
You get this overwhelming sense of suffering in the opening of War for the Planet of the Apes. Apes are massacred and forced to defend their species with man-made weapons. It’s an unusual occurrence to watch unfold since you’re obviously meant to feel more for the apes than the humans and you absolutely fall for that hook, line, and sinker. Even in the opening moments of the film, the science fiction sequel covers bonding, loss, revenge, and betrayal. Apes are constantly switching sides in the film to help the humans in the fight to get the upper hand on their own species. These traitors are referred to as donkeys. They’re bullied around and are forced to do dirty work, but they take it all in stride because they’ve turned their back on Caesar and choose to follow a human since their blind allegiance to Koba still burns bright.
The acting is mostly tremendous. Amiah Miller doesn’t say a word as Nova the entire film yet says so much with brilliant facial expressions and a gargantuan heart that bleeds deep with every action she makes. Karin Konoval, who portrays Maurice, is another who has limited speaking ability but is Caesar’s advisor and the wisest of the group. Konoval allows his eyes to illustrate his emotions and intentions and they’re always kind and compassionate even during wartime. Bad Ape is the comedic relief of the film though and he is played to an outstanding degree by Steve Zahn. Bad Ape’s delightful personality and charming charisma overcome his weak and cowardly persona. Zahn’s comedic background allows Bad Ape to be this secondary character that you undoubtedly adore.
The two main stars of the film are at two opposite ends of the spectrum of satisfaction. Andy Serkis has never given a bad performance when it comes to stop-motion animation. Caesar has matured over the course of the past three films and it’s Serkis who deserves credit for bringing all of that to life. Caesar is blinded by bloodlust in War for the Planet of the Apes, but Serkis seems to tap into something he didn’t in the previous two films whenever the odds are against Caesar. Throughout the film, Caesar is plagued by visions of Koba still alive and well taunting him and telling him to give into his desires. Caesar is more obsessed with revenge than he is with keeping his own species safe. Serkis is able to bring these layers to the character with a simple scowl or a menacing glare at a little girl who keeps eyeballing his water container. Somehow Andy Serkis goes out there and gives the motion capture performance of a lifetime whenever he’s attached to a project like this.
Meanwhile Woody Harrelson is the exact opposite. The Colonel has this fascinating backstory (that is basically what drives The Governor on The Walking Dead if you swapped zombies for monkeys), but Harrelson’s performance is lackluster at best. Harrelson chose to play the character with little to no emotion, which makes sense since The Colonel has grown completely numb to the killing and devastation of war. But The Colonel is boring due to Woody Harrelson not doing much of anything with the role. He yells two words, throws some paint on his face, and shaves his head in front of way too many people to count, but he mostly just comes off as being full of himself. It’s more than a little disappointing after Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke set the bar so high in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
You love these characters, want to spend more time with them, and want to see what the fate will be of this unfortunate world, but the ending to War is so perfect; powerful, gut-wrenching, and flawless that you ponder if further sequels will perhaps tarnish a glorious legacy. War for the Planet of the Apes is the third sequel all franchises should aim to have in their filmography. A film this far along that still packs this gargantuan emotional impact with heartfelt implications and action that is explosively meaningful. These films get better and more satisfying with each entry. War for the Planet of the Apes is one of the most sincere and one of the most human films to experience in theaters this year. Andy Serkis is a monkey god among men.