Humanity gets what it deserves in War for the Planet of the Apes, rounding out a thrilling trilogy setting the stage for Charlton Heston's arrival in 1968.
Like its hyper-intelligent simian hero Caesar, the series evolves beyond mere expectations of summertime fun into Shakespearean spectacle. War for the Planet of the Apes is fantasy as history's mirror, from primal survival to inhumane atrocities. Stakes are raised through hindsight; these apes are us, and the worst of us is them. Matt Reeves' movie broods even better than it blows up things.
Caesar is again portrayed by Andy Serkis in another masterful motion-capture performance, each movement and expression "painted" over with CGI makeup. It's an impressive act of ape physicality transcended by Serkis' eyes, windows to Caesar's soul being tested, his ape ethics challenged. Caesar is akin to Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, driven by vengeful hatred of a race/species to an unbecoming brink.
Several years after Chapter 2 ended, Caesar's colony of variously intellectual apes readies for an invasion of human soldiers trying in vain to wipe out the simian flu epidemic. They're aided by apes loyal to Koba, slain by Caesar, and led by Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson). There's an Apocalypse Now brutality to their raids on "the Kong," a homophone connection of both King and Viet types.
One such raid leads to the deaths of Caesar's wife and son, sending Caesar on a quest to kill the colonel, end the slaughter and liberate enslaved apes. It's a journey through Hollywood imagery of inhumanity, populated by apes: refugee marches, plantation lashings, concentration camps, slaves hauling rocks like Ben-Hur. Reeves' movie is uncommonly serious for a summer blockbuster.
War for the Planet of the Apes glides with dramatic assurance between action set pieces, a epic style at times bringing the works of John Ford and David Lean to mind through Michael Seresin's vista lenses and Michael Giacchino's score. It's a shame the human characters aren't as interesting as their ape opponents; a furrowed brow and seethe-speak is all Harrelson brings. Such a grand setting deserves all personalities filling it.
Certainly these apes fulfill their obligations, more realistically than ever. In a bravura introduction, Caesar's point of view takes us into a front line trench, past the awed stares of weary ape soldiers. It's a shot straight out of Kubrick's Paths of Glory yet fresher than simple homage. With it, the war's toll is immediately relatable, reflected in simian faces.
Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback concede their plot's somberness with intruding comic relief from Steve Zahn's Bad Ape, a bit too Jar Jar Binks for his surroundings. But it's a testament to the movie's dramatic heft — chiefly Serkis' performance — that humor seems out of place. War for the Planet of the Apes seals Caesar's place in the pantheon of movie messiahs and the trilogy's place among the finest ever.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.