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After the surprisingly good Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the absolutely stellar Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, expectations were high for the latest installment in the Apes reboot series, War for the Planet of the Apes, to bring the trilogy to a satisfying close. Unfortunately, while War delivers breathtaking visuals and features possibly Andy Serkis’s best performance as Caesar, it doesn’t quite stick the landing and ends up being the weakest entry in the series. [SPOILER WARNING]
One of most disappointing things about War for the Planet of the Apesis that it basically sidelines the eponymous war between the intelligent apes and what’s left of humanity. Dawn ended on a cliffhanger that promised all-out war and both the title of the third movie and its marketing strongly implied that the conflict would be War’s main focus.
In actuality, after a very promising opening action sequence, the vast majority of apes leave the narrative and return much later as prisoners of war, used as slave labor by human soldiers. The soldiers, led by Colonel (Woody Harrelson) are gearing up to fight a different human faction, which is the conflict that ends up taking precedence.
Taking it one step further, it turns out that the Simian Flu that wiped out the majority of humanity in between Rise and Dawn has now mutated, reducing the intelligence of infected humans to a more primitive state. It makes sense in the context of the source material but also shifts the stakes of the conflict in an unsatisfying way. It’s not so much War for the Planet of the Apes as it is Humanity is at War With Itself and Dealing with Another Viral Outbreak and Also Apes Are There.
War does set up a personal conflict between Caesar and the Colonel, at the expense of cheaply killing of major ape characters from previous entries. Caesar wrestling with his thirst for vengeance while also trying to do what’s best for his species is a great direction to take the character in. Andy Serkis rises to the challenge and gives arguably his best and most complex performance as the leader of the Apes.
The Colonel is not a particularly interesting villain. He’s restrained by the narrative since one of his biggest scenes in the movie involves delivering a massive exposition dump to Caesar. Harrelson makes the best of it and still turns in a memorable performance, but he’s mostly there as fuel for Caesar’s hatred.
The Apes trying to survive and ultimately escape a POW camp is an interesting and compelling setup. It’s just not what one might have expected or wanted out of a movie that promised the final confrontation between humans and apes. While the magnitude of the conflict has risen dramatically, War never comes close to achieving the sense of scale and importance previous entries mustered.
There was something both incredibly epic and tragic about Koba’s all-out assault on the human colony in Dawn. War is bigger but feels less significant. On a moment-to-moment basis, the third installment manages some of the most heartfelt and emotionally charged moments in the series, but as a conclusion to said series, it doesn’t hit the notes it should.
Nova (Amiah Miller), a human orphan afflicted with the new virus and Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a hermit and an outsider that encounter Caesar’s war party are both wonderful new additions to the cast. Nova plays a key part in War’s most emotionally devastating moments and Bad Ape brings some well-timed, perfectly executed and much-needed levity to the otherwise grim proceedings.
War of the Planet of the Apes also introduces the idea of “Donkeys” – apes that betray their own kind and fight for the humans, despite being treated horribly by them. It’s an interesting idea that adds a shade of the gray to an otherwise clear cut conflict for survival and dominance. It’s a little disappointing that this subplot ends in a cliche.
One undeniable positive feature of the movie is its gorgeous visuals. It’s the best looking Apes movie and not just in terms of special effects. It’s just a beautiful movie that features a lot more locations than any previous film in this franchise and makes the most of every single one.
While far from being a bad movie, War for the Planet of the Apes is definitely an underwhelming conclusion to the series. It brings closure to the characters and the story, and is full of great performances and outstanding visuals – but fails to live up the high standards of it predecessor and doesn’t deliver the epic finale we were promised.