Film Review

War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting conclusion to a brilliant blockbuster trilogy

By Leigh Monson

   It’s quite frankly and astounding thing that the Planet of the Apes prequels have been made in the form they have in the current Hollywood system. Low on action but demanding in terms of computer-generated special effects, the Apes films are $150 million movies that don’t aim to hit as many demographics as possible, and they are so unapologetically bleak that it begs the question of who over at Fox was crazy enough to give these films a chance. But here’s the thing: all three of these films are fantastic, including War for the Planet of the Apes, which is at once a fitting conclusion to trilogy protagonist Caesar’s narrative arc and a biting political commentary that explores the depths of human depravity.
   Caesar (Andy Serkis, delivering yet another jaw-dropping performance even under the layers of CG wizardry) and his people are in hiding from human soldiers who seek to wipe apekind from the face of the earth. After a battle claims the lives of many on both sides, Caesar decides to free his prisoners of war as an offering of peace in hopes that the enemy leader will leave them be. Of course, this is not what happens, and an inciting incident too juicy to spoil set Caesar off on a quest for vengeance, though what he finds on his journey and at his destination proves shocking.
   There’s a lot of thematic ground with an equal amount of depth to War, but to get in detail would be to spoil the film’s best surprises. Suffice it to say that this is a thinking person’s movie, focused on using science fiction as a mode for allegory rather than overblown action, which is a refreshing in a blockbuster landscape defined by appealing to the lowest common denominator. At its heart, War for the Planet of the Apes is a story about communication, how spoken language is not the hallmark of intelligence or dignity, and how a failure to listen is more impactful than a just or righteous argument. This all comes into crystal focus once we finally meet our antagonist, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a regressivist villain who fits right at home in the political climate of 2017. His motives are coherent, but in no ways are they empathetic, especially when you discover just what he has been willing to sacrifice in the name of ideology.
   If there’s one thing that bothers me about War, though, it’s that the film makes a lot of thematic and visual reference to other classic films so that the plot of this one feels like a greatest hits of the filmmakers’ favorites. Allusions to The Ten Commandments, The Great Escape, and, most egregiously, Apocalypse Now practically slap you in the face with how obvious they are. These cues don’t diminish the impact of their application to Caesar and the apes—the dialogue and performances are fantastic enough to sell the story on its own terms—but it’s unfortunate that the film feels the need to do the cinematic equivalent of elbowing you in the ribs and asking if you get it.
   That quibble makes War for the Planet of the Apes a slightly inferior film than its predecessor, Dawn, but only by the barest of margins. In a year dominated by remarkably strong offerings in blockbuster and genre filmmaking, War stands out as a fiercely intelligent and conviction-filled conclusion to an epic, an emotional powerhouse that delivers an experience as bittersweet as it is satisfying. Apes. Together. Strong.

4.5/5 stars

Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.

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