The new PLANET OF THE APES series keeps getting better and better.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011) was an okay reboot, solid yet uninspiring. Its sequel DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014) was better. I liked it but I didn’t love it.
Now comes WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017) a thoroughly engrossing tale that is equal parts futuristic science fiction, epic adventure, and prisoner of war drama. All three parts work well to comprise a story that is captivating from start to finish, so much so, that this third film is clearly the best entry of the series thus far.
Of course, it helps to have a talented director at the helm. Matt Reeves, who also directed DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, is one of the more talented directors working today. He’s directed some of my favorite horror movies in recent years, films like CLOVERFIELD (2008) and LET ME IN (2010), and now WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. I only wish he’d make more movies.
When WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES opens, we find Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his band of apes still hiding in the woods, still trying to avoid the humans who are out to conquer them. This time around, the advancing human military is led by a charismatic officer known as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson).
A small military unit locates the apes and attack, but they are defeated. Caesar spares the lives of a couple of prisoners and sends them back as a peace-offering, but this doesn’t stop the Colonel, who returns and raids the apes’ camp, killing Caesar’s wife and son.
Found out, the apes have to move, but Caesar announces that he’s not accompanying them, as he is intent on finding and killing the Colonel. Eventually, all the apes, Caesar included, are captured by the Colonel’s forces, setting the stage for the second half of the movie, which plays out as a riveting prisoner of war tale, where the apes attempt to plan a daring escape, even as another military contingent moves in, one that is at odds with the Colonel and plans on wiping out all the occupants at the base, including the apes.
There is so much to like about WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. I liked how Caesar evolved here. In the first film, he barely spoke, saying one word here, one word there. In the second film, he spoke more, but not entirely fluently. Here, he speaks effortlessly, which makes him an even stronger character.
The storyline of the disease which wiped out humans and gave intelligence to apes continues to evolve in this movie and remains compelling. This time around, we learn that the disease is changing, that the remaining humans are gradually losing the ability to speak, and are slowly becoming more beast-like, while the apes are becoming more intelligent. This plot point hearkens back to the original series, where apes were intelligent, and humans were mute animals.
We first get a hint of this change when Caesar and friends find a young girl (Amiah Miller) who cannot speak. Orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) eventually names her Nova, in a nod to the Linda Harrison character from the 1968 original film PLANET OF THE APES.
And more apes than just the ones with Caesar were affected, as they meet another chimpanzee who goes by the name Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and who tells them his story.
There are a lot of nods to the original series here. The soldiers wear the symbols for Alpha and Omega on their helmets, which is a nod to the Alpha/Omega bomb which destroyed the Earth in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970). The line is used, “the only good ape is a dead ape,” which is a reference to General Ursus’ line “The only good human is a dead human,” also from BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.
Again, there’s the character of Nova, and I liked how they came up with the name, as she finds a grille from a Chevy Nova. Also, when Maurice says her name, “Nova,” he says it the same way and with the same cadence as Charlton Heston said it in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, so much so that I wonder if they dubbed in Heston’s voice here.
Speaking of Maurice, his name is a nod to the actor Maurice Evans who played the orangutan Dr. Zaius in the original films. And Caesar’s little son is named Cornelius, who was the character played by Roddy McDowall in the original films, and in those films Cornelius was Caesar’s father.
There are also just some funny monkey references. The back of one of the soldier’s helmets reads BEDTIME FOR BONZO, a reference to the Ronald Reagan movie, a comedy which featured a chimpanzee. Also, the apes who work for the Colonel are called “donkeys,” a reference to Donkey Kong.
The special effects are amazing. The apes look phenomenal. They’re so good it’s easy to forget that nearly every character in this movie is a CGI creation. The only main human character is Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, and the rest of the humans are nameless soldiers, and yet the film doesn’t suffer for it at all. You don’t watch this movie and feel like you’re watching an animated cartoon. These characters seem genuine and real, more so than some of the human characters we see in other movies. And their story is compelling. You really do feel for the apes and want them to escape from the prison.
Andy Serkis, who’s become the king of motion capture performances, is excellent once again here as Caesar. I don’t think they give Oscars yet for this category, but if they did, he should get one. And he’s not alone here.
Both Karin Konoval as Maurice and Terry Notary as Caesar’s other loyal friend Rocket have also been in all three APES movies, and they’ve been excellent each time as well. Also of interest, both Serkis and Notary have played King Kong. Serkis played Kong in the Peter Jackson remake KING KONG (2005), and Notary played Kong in KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017).
Two newcomers also really stand out. Steve Zahn as Bad Ape nearly steals the movie with his humorous and touching performance as the ape who had survived on his own all these years before meeting Caesar and his band of apes. The best part about Bad Ape is that he’s funny without being annoying, and he’s scared without being a coward. He steps up when needed.
Likewise, young Amiah Miller is superb as Nova, in a role that is even more impressive considering she doesn’t speak any lines as Nova cannot talk. Her scenes with Caesar are especially moving. Once Nova and then Bad Ape enter the storyline, the film really takes off. Miller reminded me somewhat of a very young Amanda Seyfried.
And Woody Harrelson does what he has to do as the evil Colonel. The role isn’t as fleshed out as the apes’ characters, but it doesn’t really need to be. He’s the villain, and Harrelson gives the guy real presence, so much so that things always feel disturbing when he’s on-screen. And we do get some background on him, as we learn what happened to his son.
The script by Mark Bomback and director Reeves is excellent. I loved the story it tells, and the ape characters are all fleshed out to the point where you forget you’re watching CGI creations. I especially liked the story, which is essentially divided into three parts. The first part picks up where DAWN left off, and features apes and humans battling in the jungle. The second part becomes an epic adventure, where the apes migrate from the jungle, and where Caesar and his small band of friends go off on their own across beaches and eventually into a wintry mountain terrain as they seek out the Colonel. It’s this sequence where they find Nova and meet Bad Ape.
And then there’s the third part, the gripping grueling prisoner of war tale, where Caesar must lead the apes on a daring escape. This part plays like the classic war movies of yesteryear, films like STALAG 17 (1953) and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963). With each chapter of the story, the film gets stronger, as each story is better than the previous one.
I’m a huge Matt Reeves fan, and he does a phenomenal job here. His films CLOVERFIELD and LET ME IN are among my favorite horror movies period. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES now joins that list. Of course, the true test for Reeves is his next movie, as he’s writing and directing the upcoming THE BATMAN, the standalone Batman film starring Ben Affleck. Good luck, Matt!
And WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES features yet another powerful music score by Michael Giacchino, who we just talked about last week as he scored SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017). I liked his score for APES here even better than his SPIDER-MAN score. It reminded me a lot of the score he wrote for LET ME IN. It’s potent, militaristic, and haunting.
I really liked WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Everything about it works.
It’s easily the best of the rebooted APES series.