Make Ape-Merica Great Again.
It would be nearly impossible to watch War for the Planet of the Apes without drawing comparisons to the current political climate in America regardless of where you find yourself on the political spectrum, so mournfully philosophical is this planned finale in the emotionally intelligent and visually captivating Planet of the Apes films. War for the Planet of the Apes is the least satisfying of the three films, though only by a hair, and my guess is that anyone who has surrendered themselves to the first two films in the planned trilogy will have no trouble setting aside this film's slightly less compelling story and a climax that is rather predictable and decidedly anti-climactic.
Caesar is back, Andy Serkis once again proving that he is without peer when it comes to motion-capture work, as the film picks up two years after the events in Dawn with Caesar and his tribe running deep into the forest where a fleeting period of peace is disrupted by a surprise attack by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) and his human survivors turned militant soldiers who take out a large collective of Apes including one that sends the moderately peaceful Caesar out for revenge. Sending his tribe off toward the remote safety of a desert, Caesar heads out after McCullough, a solo endeavor quickly joined by Caesar's loyalists including Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary).
There is never any question that War for the Planet of the Apes is headed toward, well, war. War has the same creative team as did Dawn with Matt Reeves back in the director's chair and Reeves co-writing with Mark Bomback. While Dawn was more grounded in the franchise's early years, War takes a few more risks and attempts to establish an original voice with mixed results.
There are some pleasant surprises along the way including the introduction of Steve Zahn's delightfully manifested Bad Ape, unexpectedly discovered to be another talking chimp, and the quieter introduction of Nova, a young human girl played by Amiah Miller whose importance to the future may only be known by those with an extensive knowledge of the source material.
If there's one key reason that War for the Planet of the Apes falls short of its predecessors, it's likely because the film is so obviously aiming much higher. From Michael Giacchino's stark, percussion-intense orchestral score to Michael Seresin's magnificent lensing and the ever improving CGI that continues to put most other CGI creations to shame, War for the Planet of the Apes builds up expectations that it never quite lives up to.
Woody Harrelson's portrayal of the maniacal McCullough starts off with such bravado that one can practically smell napalm in the morning when McCullough arises, though it's a bravado that Harrelson doesn't sustain mostly because the Reeves/Bomback script can't seem to decide whether or not McCullough is truly insane or simply a cartoon caricature from some other world. While Gary Oldman has never quite been known for his restraint, the truth is that Oldman was precisely in Dawn what Harrelson should be here. Harrelson isn't weak here, though he's the film's weak link and his performance seems to strike a different tone from everything else that unfolds in War.
If only Harrelson had been as restrained in his performance as is the vast majority of the rest of the film, a quiet and unnerving eerie quality often piercing the snow-capped mountains as humans build walls, both real and imagined, against other humans and, of course, against those apes. The film's final moments are, perhaps, its weakest moments as its quietly meditative action sequences give way to popcorn flick formulaic sequences and a War that feels more the Hatfields vs. McCoys than it does a battle for the planet.
While War for the Planet of the Apes may not be the cinematic masterpiece we want it to be, even at its worst it continues to be an immensely entertaining and substantial summer action flick and helps this trilogy lay claim to being one of the finest of the recent cinematic reboots existing well below Nolan's Dark Knight films yet well above most others.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic