War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Hail, Caesar!

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The recent reboot of the Planet of the Apes series has been one of the most interesting cases of reboot during last 10 years. In “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), the franchise successfully recharged itself with considerable potentials, and I was surprised as finding myself caring a lot about its ape hero who eventually became the leader of a big evolutionary revolution as the fall of humanity began. In “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014), the potentials glimpsed from the previous movie were further developed as he and his fellow apes inevitably clashed with human survivors, and the result was certainly one of more memorable films I saw during 2014.

Now here comes “War for the Planet of the Apes”, and I can attest that this supposedly final chapter of the series exceeds my expectation just like its predecessors. While being as grim and intense as required, the movie is also quite smart, compelling, and thoughtful in terms of story and characters, and that is something we do not encounter very often during summer blockbuster season. I was gripped by its brooding but captivating apocalyptic tale which will probably make you reflect on the dark sides of humanity, I was involved in its ape hero’s another plight he must go through, and I was impressed by how the movie powerfully delivers a satisfying epic finale he richly deserves.

As you probably remember, a genetically engineered virus strain lethal to human beings was spread all around the world at the end of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, but this virus provided an evolutionary breakthrough for Caesar (Andy Serkis) and many other apes, who all became quite smarter and then came to form their own community as shown in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”. After the eventual clash between humans and apes occurred despite Caesar’s good-willed effort during the finale of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, Caesar came to realize that he had no choice but to fight for his species’ survival, and the eventual war between his species and humanity began as explained during the opening sequence of “War for the Planet of the Apes”.

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It has been around two years since the war began, and the situation is not exactly good for Caesar and his tribe. While they have managed to hide from the human soldiers commanded by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) for a while, their hiding place is eventually exposed, and the resulting battle results in massive loss in both sides. Caesar tries to be reasonable despite that, but, alas, he subsequently comes to pay a hefty price for his choice; his wife and his first son are killed later, and he naturally becomes determined to get revenged on the very person responsible for his heartbreaking loss – the Colonel.

Although Caesar’s longtime confidant Maurice (Karin Konoval), an Orangutan who has always been an endearing character to me, advises to him that he should lead his tribe to a possible safe place first, Caesar is adamant about having his revenge on the Colonel. While having his tribe depart for that safe place as planned, he embarks on his journey to the Colonel’s place, and he is accompanied by Maurice and two other apes who have been loyal to him.

As they ride their horses together across wide, snowy landscapes, the movie evokes the qualities of classic western films while also being reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and, yes, “Apocalypse Now” (1979). Cinematographer Michael Seresin, who previously did a wonderful job in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, provides a number of superlative visual moments full of bleak apocalyptic beauty, and Michael Giacchino’s score, which feels more expressive and harmonic compared to his restrained dissonant work in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, effectively enhances the mood and drama unfolded on the screen.

During their journey, Caesar and his fellow apes come across two different characters. One is a young human girl who is mute for a reason which will be revealed later in the story, and the other one is an ape who can speak just like Caesar. Although she does not speak any line in the film, young performer Amiah Miller holds her own place well among Caesar and other ape characters, and she is poignant as her character gradually becomes closer to Maurice. As “Bad Ape”, Steve Zahn brings some sense of humor to the movie, and I like how he subtly conveys the pathos behind his character’s comic neurotic attitude.

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After steadily building up narrative momentum during its first half, the screenplay by director Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback goes into darker areas as Caesar comes to face the stark horror and madness in the Colonel’s place. Certainly reminiscent of Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now”, Woody Harrelson brings considerable menace and intensity to his scenes, and we are horrified by what the Colonel is going to do while also understanding how desperate and despairing the situation is for him and his men. Humanity is bound to fall irreversibly, but he and his men are not going away easily, and he is surely determined to do whatever is necessary in his twisted view.

While pulling out all the stops during its expected climax action sequence, the movie still remains driven by story and characters. We are surely served with lots of CGI actions, but they are skillfully handled while serving the story and characters in the movie, and then there comes a literally sweeping dramatic moment at the end of the sequence, which feels like a grand finishing touch to what is achieved by Reeves and his crew.

And there is another superb performance by Andy Serkis, who imbues his CGI character with heart and soul as he did in two previous films. Thanks to Serkis, Caesar is a compelling character to watch as usual, and we are treated with several powerful scenes as observing his dramatic character arch in the film. In my review on “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, I said that Serkis might deserve a special Oscar someday as a performer behind many memorable CGI characters, and I still stand by that opinion of mine.

While there may be another sequel to follow, “War for the Planet of the Apes” completes well what was started and then developed in its two predecessors, and I am fully satisfied with that for now. What is accomplished in these three films is undeniably impressive, and I think they will have their own iconic place in the movie history like “Planet of the Apes” (1968). Humanity falls indeed – but the apes rise at least.

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