War for the Planet of the Apes is the third movie in the modern Planet of the Apes films, which started with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and continued with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014).
War picks up shortly after the events of Dawn. The Apes, led by Cesar (Andy Sirkis) are being ruthlessly hunted down by soldiers in hope to eradicate them from existence and reclaim earth as the top species.
A large regiment of soldiers has located the apes near their home in the woods, thanks to Ape traders (who are called Donkey’s by the humans) that pledged loyalty to Koba in the last film; they have sided with the humans in hopes of staying alive. This particular group is being led by a mysterious man known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who himself has a secret agenda – don’t worry, I will not spoil anything in this review. After a few of The Colonel’s men are captured, they are brought before Cesar. He spares their lives, showing mercy, in hopes that The Colonel will do the same and leave the apes in piece. But after The Colonel and a few of his men secretly enter the camp, inflicting a great amount loss to the apes, Cesar sets out on a quest to avenge his fallen brethren – a quest that will put him face-to-face with The Colonel and his morals.
Out of all three films, this is by far the darkest entry in the series. Cesar is pushed to his limit of what he will do to keep his kind safe from the humans. Unlike the last two films, were Cesar was more a pacifist, unwilling to fight unless he absolutely has too, Cesar goes on the war path to find the Colonel. Everything Cesar is, everything he has becoming in the last two films, has been stripped away from him this time; he is broken and hurting, in a dark place where delivering death to death is his only option – in a way, he has become just like Koba.
On his quest to kill The Colonel, Cesar is joined by Maurice, and two other apes that offer to help him. Along the way they discover a mysteriously mute child (Amial Miller) and another Ape, named Bad Ape (played loveably by Steve Zahn – That Thing You Do, Saving Silverman).
Over the last two films we got to see both sides: the human perspective and the ape perspective.
For the humans: Rise is filled with questions of should human kind being messing with nature, and when they do, look what happens. Dawn is how they deal with what they created, how do they go on, how they survive their own creation. And War is how they deal with it – when talking fails, you go to war.
For the Apes: Rise brings into question what it would be like for one ape to suddenly become smart (or smarter) than a human, to rise up against an aggressive species. Dawn is about betrayal and one ideal going up against another to fit the purpose of war and eradication of another species – that ape isn’t much different from man. War is how they deal with it – when talking fails, you go to war.
In the end, both species end in the same dark place.
But unlike Rise and Dawn, where we saw the good of man, and a bit of the bad, in War we get to see the darkest part of man. The Colonel (and his men) are deranged sociopaths, who will stop at nothing, including torturing, murdering, and enslaving the apes to get what they need out of them. It is in these scenes where the violence is really amped up, with apes being whipped, executed, and crucified when they step out of line.
There were times in the film where I forgot I was watching a sci-fi movie about smart apes that can talk, and thinking more about real life; how events in the history of mankind (our darkest hours as a species) played out just like some of the images on the screen. There is a heavy moral ambiguity to the film from both sides on who drew blood first – Cesar or The Colonel. And though there is no real ‘war’ in the film (there are two big battles scenes) the ‘war’ is really between ideals of who should be the supreme species – man or ape.
The performances in the movie are outstanding, especially Andy Sirkis, who could easily be nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Cesar. Yes, he is hidden under CGI, but at this point, that shouldn’t be an issue. He brings Cesar to life, much like he did Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. He does so much with just his eyes or a twitch of the face that he expels the soul within the ape to the audience that you feel everything Cesar is feeling.
Woody Harrelson as The Colonel was also very good – though there were times where I felt he was pulling a little bit of Brando’s performance as Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. He does an excellent job of making you both hate him and understand his reasoning for wanting to decimate Cesar and his ape clan.
Steve Zahn is also very good in the film as Bad Ape. Bad Ape is kind of a bumbling, stumbling, out of place ape that wants nothing to do with humans or the war between apes and humans; he just wants to live out his life in piece, alone. When I saw this character in the trailer, I feared he was going to be nothing but comedy relief for the film, and not in the good way – like Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Ep 1. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Bad Ape was essential to the plot and would prove to be pivotal in the epic climax of the film. There were times when he was funny, and his character did help lighten the mood of the film when a laugh was needed, especially after some of the torture and brutality scenes inflicted by The Colonel or his men.
That brings me to the CGI in the film. This is some of the BEST CGI I have ever seen in my life. There are times when I was unsure if I was looking at a CGI ape or if they actually used a real ape – which most likely they did not. Yes, the CGI is that good, and this is coming from someone who LOVES practical effects. Just look at the pic below and tell me that looks like a CGI ape…
Director Matt Reeves (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Cloverfield & and hopefully 2019’s The Batman) handles the script and characters with a tremendous amount of care and respect, allowing the film to unfold naturally instead of feeling forced just to get to the next big action sequence. And when the action scenes do come, they are shot very well and not over cut to the point where you cannot see what is going on.
I was really surprised how this film ended. And I can admit going in, I did not see the ending coming. I’m not sure you will either…
I will end with this: in the original Planet of the Apes movies there was a big plot hole in the series of films – why humans could no longer talk. If these new Ape movies do indeed exist in the same universe as their predecessors, they answer this question fully in War, closing the plot hole forever.
10 out of 10 Stars.