For a movie that’s headlined by War in its title, War for the Planet of the Apes employs a lot of restraint from actual blood and gore as one might be misled to think.
The movie relies more on dramatic storytelling that focuses on the characters and seamlessly offers up fantastic personal moments between them to amplify the action.
War picks up two years after the events of the masterfully-crafted Dawn of the Planet of the Apes where Caesar and Koba clash over principles on how to coexist with humans.
After Koba’s rebellion in Dawn arms the humans with more reasons to hunt the apes down, War starts with a renegade army unit, the Alpha-Omega, attacking their base in their campaign to wipe the apes out.
This opening clash sets the tone for the rest of the movie’s direction as it escalates into what drastically changes the lives of the major characters.
War dabbles in a lot of moral ambiguities that sometimes makes you question where your sympathies should really lie and whether the protagonist is as honourable as always portrayed or whether the villain is as bad as was initially projected.
Andy Serkis is still as evocative as ever as Caesar, the pacifist leader of the apes who just wants his kind to coexist peacefully with the humans despite their very toxic past.
This is the best of Serkis here playing Caesar as he is forced to deal with real loss that puts him on the opposite side of all the principles he’s always held dear since he put his community of apes together at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
It’s new territories for him as he finally realizes that perhaps, we all have monsters inside us and that it only requires the appropriate trigger to unleash it.
There are moments where even he admits that he has become Koba, everything he despised and stood against in Dawn.
Caesar has to deal with this while also trying to keep his family and community safe. The obstacles he has to clear to be able to balance these create some very interesting scenarios for the movie to provide some great thrills for the audience.
There’s a certain trick to making movies where the audience has to root against their own kind: on-screen humans, and director Matt Reeves understands this after his first run with Dawn.
In War, he keeps up with this trick where humans are hopelessly contemptible and the only things capable of being humane on the screen are the apes.
To achieve this in War, Reeves makes war junkie and discount Hitler, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), the main antagonist of the apes.
The Colonel is a brutal leader who is ready to cross even undrawn lines to make sure that he achieves his purpose of ridding Earth of the apes he considers abominations of nature and a threat to the continued survival of humans.
While it is easy to paint The Colonel as a warmonger who only sees the world as black or white, Reeves manages to flesh him out into someone that the audience could still feel a certain degree of sympathy for, if they weren’t already hostile against him for his initial evil.
This makes every interaction between Caesar and The Colonel feel just as explosive as the ones he had with Koba in Dawn.
Despite the subdued tone of the movie in actual war and violence, War continues the trilogy’s tradition of offering up stunning visual effects that feel mesmerising to the senses.
The gorgeous authenticity of the movie’s effects coupled with its flawless execution is such a magnificence for the audience to revel in.
Reeves blends the story with the effects so richly that you’d be forgiven for starting to see the apes as human now.
And maybe that’s even his plan because it turns out the simian virus that sped up the evolution of the apes has started to mutate and affect humans in ways they had not imagined.
This is one of the fuel that burns The Colonel’s hatred towards the apes as he gets the sense that they are starting to take over the planet and, in little time, will become the dominant species; a thought the fragile human ego cannot bear to entertain.
Despite the movie’s primary focus on Caesar’s internal battle with his own principles and his clash with The Colonel, one of the reasons that War excels so well is due to its attention to its rich band of supporting characters who manage to have great moments to shine and never disappoint.
Karin Konoval as Maurice continues to serve as Caesar’s most trusted adviser and has more to do here as she serves as Caesar’s emotional conscience when he loses his will to stick to his own principles.
As Caesar’s second-in-command, Rocket (Terry Notary) is committed in his role of serving Caesar and stepping up in his absence to take control. He gets a couple of great moments where he steps out of Caesar’s shadow and helps to advance the story in a meaningful way.
On the other side of the divide, Red (Ty Olsson) is a worthy adversary for Caesar’s community. Red was one of Koba’s most trusted lieutenants whose reaction to Caesar’s killing of Koba is to make an alliance with the humans to help bring down Caesar in revenge.
The movie spends a sizeable amount of time on the interactions between Red and Caesar where the ghost of Koba continues to hang over them both as they disagree over where an ape’s loyalties should lie. Red’s narrative over the course of the movie is one of the most intriguing to watch out for.
Other than The Colonel, the most significant human character in the movie is orphan Nova (Amiah Miller) who is a perfect example of the future of the human race and a better insight into what triggered The Colonel’s murderous instincts.
With a stirring mute performance, Nova is the face of humanity’s new evolution, a representation of its ill-advised reengineering of the affairs of nature.
Of this crop of brilliant supporting actors, the most note-worthy performance belongs to newcomer Bad Ape (Steve Zahn).
Bad Ape is a hermit who has been mostly alone since the flu outbreak that tipped the dominance of the planet over to the apes.
Reeves handles his characterization with such emotional sensitivity that is punctuated by tender comic moments that never jeopardises the overall mood of the movie.
The trilogy has never been one that bothered itself with humour because of the polarising political arguments it is always trying to weigh, but Bad Ape’s introduction refreshingly toes that line without losing sight of the objective.
Credit for this should also go to Zahn who handles the character with such understated maturity that’s largely an uncommon sight.
The character’s existence also, for the first time, directly answers the agelong question of whether there are other apes that exist outside of Caesar’s clan after the virus broke out 15 years ago in Rise.
The Planet of the Apes trilogy has always felt captivating mostly due to its purposeful storytelling that borders on relevant social commentary.
Caesar, and his band of weary apes, suffer a great deal of agony in War that it is hard to disregard the movie’s underlying pleas for peace.
Reeves’ grounded use of visual effects and the great skill of the cast makes it easy for the audience to forget that this is a sci-fi movie, and this is one of the great joys of War as it delivers with conviction.
The movie’s execution is bold and it relies on the strengths of its character to enthrall and constantly surprise its audience.
Even though there is no indication that this will be the last Apes movie, it is the perfect end to a perfect trilogy.
Not many franchises can boast of that.