From its inception six summers ago, the new-and-improved Planet of the Apes movie cycle has kept the original films from the ‘60s and ‘70s at an arm’s distance. It’s managed to borrow from the past without seeming burdened by it or beholden to it. Which is probably for the best since anyone in his or her right mind has to concede that the classic series jackknifed off the rails as soon as Charlton Heston left. It isn’t just the look of the new films that’s been upgraded thanks to breathtaking motion capture technology, the storytelling has gotten richer and more complex, too. Like Caesar and company, the films seem to be getting more intelligent and human as they evolve.
Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes is the best Apes installment yet (regardless of whether we’re talking new or classic formula). Picking up 15 years after the outbreak of the population-decimating simian flu, the film feels like a primate hybrid of The Searchers, The Great Escape, and Apocalypse Now (with lone human movie star, Woody Harrelson, in the gonzo Kurtz role). It’s a rollicking old-fashioned warm weather entertainment juiced with the most cutting cutting-edge effects. When we last left the benevolent ape leader Caesar in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes he had just emerged from a two-pronged battle against a band of double-dealing human ambassadors and his belligerent ape rival, Koba. The years in between haven’t been very peaceful for the apes. A brutal conflict between man and ape is brewing once again—this time led by Harrelson’s mysterious, mad-eyed Colonel. When the apes’ edenic forest home is stormed by the Colonel’s hit squad, Caesar’s wife and son are murdered. Now he wants revenge, proving that apes are capable of learning mankind’s uglier emotions along with the more admirable ones. There are even a few ape traitors helping out the Colonel’s race war. So much for “ape not kill ape.”
Essentially structured as an old-school Hollywood Western epic right out of the John Ford playbook, Caesar and his small posse of payback-seeking apes ride on horseback (those poor horses!) across the snowy Sierra mountains. They even pick up a couple of new members along the way, including a young human girl (Amiah Miller) whom they name “Nova” (a nod for long-time fans of the series) and a small talking chimp that escaped from a zoo. He calls himself “Bad Ape,” no doubt after the insults once hurled at him by his human captors. Beneath the pixels, Steve Zahn injects “Bad Ape” with sorely needed humor and heartbreaking emotional heft.
The wind-up to the film’s climactic Caesar-vs.-Colonel showdown takes its sweet time, but War never gets stuck in the sort of bloated longeurs that plague so many summer blockbusters pushing past the two-hour mark. The credit for that largely goes to composer Michael Giacchino’s better-than-it-needs-to-be score—a freaky symphony of staccato woodwinds, plucky strings, and ominous thumping kettle drums—and Andy Serkis, who brings Caesar to life once again. Caesar and all of the apes are such a marvel of uncanny verisimilitude that you never stop to ask why the human characters aren’t on screen very much. It’s the ape-iest Apes movie by far.
Harrelson, an actor with a tendency to chew on his roles like an unlucky wad of Red Man tobacco, seems to understand exactly what kind of movie he’s in, just like Gary Oldman did in Dawn. Outfitted in army fatigues, menacing sunglasses, and grease face paint, he’s decided to go Full Brando here, especially when he shaves his cueball head with a straight razor in front of his cult-like followers. His Colonel knows that apes like Caesar are no longer controllable and lower on the evolutionary ladder. If anything, they now have the upper hand. But he’s not going to go down with a hammed-up fight.
When Caesar finally reaches the Colonel’s fortified mountain compound, he sees his fellow apes in chains as prisoners. Or are they bait? Caesar and his team need to break them out in true McQueen/Bronson style. If War occasionally lapses into mawkish, melodramatic moments it doesn’t need (or that Reeves’ and Mark Bomback’s script can’t fully support—apparently apes can be as corny as humans), War more than makes up for it with sequences of such eye-candy spectacle you won’t cry foul. I’m not sure where the Apes franchise goes from here exactly. Or if it even goes anywhere. But if this is the series’ swan song, it’s going out on top. B+