My first thought coming out of Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes was “Thank goodness the next Batman movie is in good hands” and while this may seem like a distracted thought it’s actually one of the highest compliments I can pay Mister Reeves. I confess that the cinematic exploits of the Caped Crusader are far more important to me personally than those of the sometimes friendly, sometimes not-so-friendly simians that populate the Apes films and this isn’t likely to change. But it is the confidence Reeves inspires that is relevant here, born out of his creating a film in War that is hugely satisfying both emotionally and intellectually.
Commencing two years after the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (also done by Reeves), War finds the current protagonist of the franchise, Andy Serkis’ Caesar, and the rest of the intelligent, genetically modified apes whom viewers have come to know over the course of the rebooted trilogy which started with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes engaged in increasingly brutal conflict with a militant regiment of humans who survived the apocalyptic virus that killed off most of the planet’s population. After the regiment’s leader, the extremist Colonel (Woody Harrelson), inflicts unspeakable horror upon Caesar, the once noble chimp sets out for revenge accompanied by three close companions with the journey testing his morality and psyche in highly intriguing ways and Serkis turns in another mesmerizing performance (while I understand some Academy members’ reluctance to nominate a performance at least partially constructed by visual effects artists for a standard leading actor award, Serkis definitely at least deserves some kind of special recognition for his pioneering work in this still-new style of acting).
Like Dawn and, to a lesser extent, Rise, War is more than anything a cautionary tale. In addition to the social commentary against xenophobia and intolerance carried over from its predecessors War is also a powerful examination of violence and well, war. Caesar’s always been a unique blockbuster antagonist (he is after all a chimpanzee and one that’s made enemies of humankind more than once) but War is a moral quagmire that one really doesn’t expect from a movie featuring talking animals. While the film starts out focused on typical issues of ends justifying means the second and third acts are what push the film into the territory of great war or anti-war film, depending on how one sees it. Reeves’ direction truly shines in the moments when he lingers intimately on the effects that Caesar’s morally questionable acts have on his soul. This is a highly intelligent, educated simian who sees no other way to protect his family and friends than to resort to methods he knows are reprehensible. This is Apocalypse Now, just with fur and some religious imagery.
While Caesar and the thematic ideas are the main attractions, War has plenty other things to offer. The motion capture effects continue to stun, with a close-up, emotional dialogue between Caesar and Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape being a particular showcase for the artists’ spectacular skill at maintaining the complexities of the actors’ expressions despite heavy CGI alteration to their appearances. While all the actors playing apes do fine work (if not as brilliant as Serkis) the real scene stealer amongst the supporting cast is Harrelson. The Colonel is one of the best screen villains in recent years and this is thanks in no small part to Harrelson’s rage-filled, intimidating performance. It does help that the writing for the character is very timely, with xenophobia and disregard for the rules of combat and leadership feeling like a particularly relevant blend of evil with said relevance being made abundantly clear when it is revealed the Colonel is using slave labor from prisoners to build a wall. The film’s action is probably its biggest weakness. First of all it bares mentioning that this isn’t at all a traditional summer blockbuster and there really isn’t that much action to discuss. That being said, what few skirmishes there are really aren’t that impressive. In yet another unconventional move for a sci-fi epic combat isn’t at all glorified, which fits well with the serious examination of violence Reeves is conducting. However, not all of the violence put on screen is shocking or inventive enough to effectively display the brutality and devastation Reeves wants to convey (the score also occasionally feels a bit out of place tonally). Scenes of torture serve their thematic purpose much better than the gun fights or human hand to ape hand combat do. While the fight scenes in War are rightfully about as far as you can get from something like The Avengers they also not close enough to say Looper or Saving Private Ryan.
In summary, Reeves and company have created a unique and highly impressive piece of work. War for the Planet of the Apes is a powerful examination of the self-inflicted dangers facing humanity, disguised as a sci-fi action thriller and its strengths far outweigh its few minor weaknesses.