Film Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

Matt Reeves closes out his 'Apes' trilogy with a well-crafted, if imperfect, 'War.'
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Just four months since the release of our last Apocalypse Now-inspired ape movie in which Toby Kebbell and mo-cap whiz Terry Notary put in appearances—that would be Kong: Skull Island, for those keeping track—director Matt Reeves gives us the year’s second with War of the Planet of the Apes. Thankfully, they’re both good, but it’s probably best to not press our luck by trying for a third quite yet.

When Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes left us, ape general Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his genetically enhanced cohorts were on the verge of all-out war against the remnants of humanity. Here, the war has broken out, and the result is a stylish and engaging film that nonetheless stumbles a bit on the story side of things. The villain—Woody Harrelson as “the Colonel”—is the sort of “bad guy who does bad things because he genuinely believes he’s in the right” character we’ve seen a hundred times before…like, for example, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, where Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus isn’t substantially different. Additionally, War has some plot holes that distract. (If you capture the leader of a rebel army, the first thing you want to do is kill him.)

Most disappointing is how War treats the character of Caesar, putting him down the road to a dark night of the soul that…doesn’t really go much of anywhere. You can tell that Reeves and co-screenwriter Mark Bomback set out to tackle the moral grey areas of war, but any time Caesar’s in a position of potentially losing audience sympathy, a deus ex machina comes along and sweeps the choice out of his hands. There’s a lack of convinction here, an unwillingness to really let Caesar be anything other than an upstanding hero. Simply put, War isn’t as smart or as deep as it thinks it is. Hell, graffiti reading “Ape-ocalypse Now” puts in an appearance at one point. This is not a film that trades in subtlety.

That said, if War of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t take the summer blockbuster to new heights, it’s still an exceptionally well-crafted film. (If one that could stand to be 20 minutes shorter. That’s true of a lot of films nowadays.) The visual effects are impeccable, on par with the “Wait, is that real?” visual wizardry Disney delivered in last year’s The Jungle Book. Among the actors there’s nary a sour note, with Serkis in particular bringing dignity and gravitas to the apes’ rebel leader. And for being PG-13, War goes dark at times, a bold choice that will help it stand out from the sanitized summer-movie pack. Special mention must be made of Michael Giacchino’s wonderful score. With an Oscar forUp and credits on Rogue One,Star Trek, “Lost” and dozens of other film and TV projects, Giacchino’s not exactly a slouch under normal circumstances, but he really fires on all cylinders here.

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