If after the disastrous 2001 Tim Burton Planet of the Apes remake, I were to tell you that the new Apes prequel/reboot trilogy that began with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be one of the more effective and affecting series of genre films ever, you’d have probably laughed in my face. But while that initial Rupert Wyatt directed film may have seemed like a fluke at the time, and Cloverfield director Matt Reeves’ follow up Dawn may have come off a tad heavy handed in the war metaphors and family melodrama departments, Reeves’ new closing chapter, War for the Planet of the Apes, earns its place in the venerated canon of uber serious, ultra nihilistic sci-fi alongside thought provoking classics like A Clockwork Orange and THX 1138, slotting neatly into the sociopolitically conscious milieu of its long standing franchise while standing tall as a singular proclamation on the nature of hate mongering and genocide.
The backbone of these films has been Andy Serkis’ motion capture performance as Caesar, and War is no different. Still haunted by the memory of Koba’s betrayal in Dawn, Caesar’s diminished forces run afoul of a group of human survivors splintered from their main opposition due to the extreme views and actions of their leader, a maniacal despot known only as The Colonel (a somewhat subdued and chillingly intense Woody Harrleson). Harrelson here channels his own Mickey Knox by way of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, but that’s not the only Apocalypse Now connection, as Caesar’s doomed revenge mission to the Colonel’s compound (a former weapons depot on the California border) has a strong Heart of Darkness vibe, the endeavor’s only shred of hope found in the form of a young female human survivor his cadre take under their wing who will come to be known as “Nova” (Amiah Miller), and an unhinged but loyal companion known only as “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), whose upbringing in a Nevada Zoo mirrors Caesar’s own origins.
Admittedly light on plot, War is a master class in tone and performance, performances made even more remarkable by the fact that 90% of the film’s principal cast is made up of completely seamless CGI. It’s also worth noting that the film is absolutely worth seeing in 3D, devoid of the typical “comin atcha” gimmickry and employed almost exclusively to give depth to the ruined beauty of the film’s rustic post apocalypse. Not that War allows its technical wizardry to overshadow what we would normally refer to as its “human drama”, and though plenty of action scene badassery does abound, the stakes are made all the more real by how invested in Serkis’ plight we’ve become over the course of these three films. And that really is what makes War so remarkable in hindsight. Though the third installment in most trilogies tends to be their weakest (Star Wars, Back to the Future), War for the Planet of the Apes is a masterpiece in its own right, but also single handedly strengthens its trilogy as a whole into one that should serve as a template for thinking man’s franchise blockbuster filmmaking for decades to come.