The original Planet of the Apes is a true classic, but one that’s mostly remembered for its iconic ending and a series of sequels that, while fine, were ultimately a case of diminishing results. The series attempted to reboot at the turn of the century with an ill-advised Tim Burton remake of the original, then sat dormant for a decade until rebooting again with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. With that film, the series found its footing – and its historical roots in crafting thought-provoking blockbusters – again. The sequel to that film, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, moved the storyline ahead in time to show the world dealing with the fallout of the first film, and in doing so managed to come up with a truly tremendous story. The director of the second film, Matt Reeves, returns for the conclusion of this trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes, and manages to somehow top Dawn for one of the best films of the year.
Several years after the events of Dawn, Caesar (Andy Serkis) is still leading his group of apes. The apes are attempting to live their lives in peace when a team of human soldiers, under the command of the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), forces them out of their home. When the attack results in a personal loss for Caesar, he strikes out to hunt down the Colonel.
War can be broken up into two main arcs; following the description above, there’s a lengthy journey through the woods that follows Caesar and a handful of apes that gives clues to how the world has continued to evolve since the last film, which eventually leads to a prison camp scenario that bears a striking similarity to Apocalypse Now.
More than the previous films, this film’s structure leaves most of the film to Caesar and the other apes, which also means long stretches of the film rely on sign language and silence. It’s unconventional, but between Reeves’ direction and the smart scoring from Michael Giacchino, it’s utterly captivating.
Also captivating? Serkis’ performance as Caesar. Caesar has become an increasingly complex character over the course of three films, and here he’s haunted by the violence that’s engulfed his life. Conveying that would be a challenge for any actor, but the way that Serkis conveys it through a motion-capture performance is still astonishing. Caesar may be a digital creation, but thanks to Serkis’ performance, as well as Reeves’ focus on character beats over traditional spectacle, Caesar seems completely real.
If it sounds like I’m being vague with the plot, that’s partially intentional. There’s a lot of heavy thematic material here, and for a major film being dropped in the summer, it’s a lot darker than audiences may be used to at this point, even compared to the previous films in this trilogy. But the way the film evolves just works. Among this summer’s blockbusters, it’s easily the best.