‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Review

Rush to “War.”

What might come across as just more summer-blockbuster monkey business is anything but. These are apes, and their movie is primitive and powerful.

In 2011, “Rise” was a pleasant surprise. Three years later, “Dawn” rose to all-time-great-sequel status. Now, with “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the franchise reboot wins the toughest box-office battle of them all: trilogy hill.

“Dawn” director Matt Reeves returns to “War” as does Andy Serkis, the moves, sounds, and eyes behind ape-leader Caesar. Though Serkis has become a CGI staple as ring-crazed Gollum and King-sized Kong, in “War” he’s swung his best performance to date.

Should Serkis be recognized by the Academy as the first-ever motion-captured-performance nominee for best actor, it would not be without controversy. But even Oscar is not immune to evolution. And its nomination of Serkis would be much deserved.

For Caesar starts and ends “War.” As one of only few apes that can speak, the movie is his to tell, which he does with more emotional adeptness than many a leading man. He truly has evolved, from being second banana to James Franco in “Rise” and Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke in “Dawn” to making Woody Harrelson’s Colonel be the chump to his chimp.

And both Caesar and the Colonel do duke it out for supremacy in this military movie. The opening is “Saving Primate Ryan” before strategically slowing down to more “Ape-ocalypse Now” (a “War” creation, not mine). The Colonel is after Caesar following the apes’ “Dawn” dominance over humans. His tactics—from the forest fight to, in particular, the cave recon—are some of the most tense sequences in recent movie memory.

Every shot, every sequence in “War” hits the target. Best of all, Reeves, cinematographer Michael Seresin, and composer Michael Giacchino have the courage to be calm and quiet. Some of the more touching scenes are those when the apes speak through sign. It actually requires the viewer to pay attention and scrutinize what they’re seeing. And what they’re seeing is history.

If Serkis’s potential Oscar nod is debatable, the technology to capture his performance is not. Weta Digital has crafted the most effective visual effects to date. At times, it almost looks as if Caesar, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), and orangutan Maurice are composed of suits, masks, or makeup with digital enhancements. But they’re not. And their apes provide a giant leap forward in computer-generated imagery, which all too often has the visual taste of primordial soup.

But the care given to that craft is compromised when audiences have little to no reason to care for their characters. Here, again, Reeves and company kill it. Caesar and Maurice pull us in through their parsing over best practices and purpose—and remember, these are apes debating if “War” should really be about peace. And perhaps the even bigger movie misnomer is Zahn’s Bad Ape. To say he is a good addition is an understatement. Bad Ape is great.

If there is any underwhelming force in “War” it’s the Colonel—not the character, but the actor. Harrelson is too over the top in a role that needs a more creepily composed, Kurtz-like demeanor.

But that is the only hole in this “Great Escape” that reaches the thematic heights of “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

“War for the Planet of the Apes” has both shock and awe.

Mission accomplished.

4.5 out of 5

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