Vengeance and intolerance lurk within the dark hearts of both man and monkey in War for the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves’ stellar, if severely solemn, end to the reboot-prequel trilogy that began with Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Reeves’ follow-up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). As its title implies, cataclysmic conflict has arrived for the intelligent simians, who were created by an experimental virus, and who are biding their time in a forest, hiding from human military forces intent on genocide, lest the high-IQ animals supersede them on the evolutionary ladder. Their leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis), is now the most wanted beast in the nation, and Reeves wastes no time getting to the interspecies mayhem, opening his sequel with a siege on the apes’ remote stronghold that’s carried out by grunts whose helmets are emblazoned with Full Metal Jacket-esque slogans like “Monkey Killer” and “Endangered Species.”
Reeves’ prolonged initial shot creeps slowly behind soldiers as they make their way up a verdant mountain pass, the suspense mounting with each successive step. It’s a setup he’ll repeat more than once throughout the course of War, each time to equally unsettling effect, and it climaxes with a battle marked by a very real sense of peril and one striking image—in this case, that of a lone ape retreating furiously on horseback in order to call his fellow apes to arms. While the ensuing sight of primates galloping across the land on steeds, wielding machine guns as well as spears, is now a common one for the franchise, Reeves nonetheless manages to elicit yet another thrilling jolt from its appearance, his visual sense so sharp and striking—additionally proven by two beach-set panoramas—that any redundancy becomes a moot point.
That’s also true of War’s action, which retains the sort of grim-dark atmosphere and attitude that characterized Dawn (not to mention Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ recent superhero efforts, to which Reeves will next contribute The Batman). Levity materializes only in the form of Steve Zahn’s “Bad Ape,” a loner whose name comes from the admonishments he used to receive from disapproving zookeepers, and who functions as the proceedings’ sole humorous element. Of course, he too is beset by a wounded soul, thanks to the death of his child, which makes him a kindred spirit to Caesar, here driven to seek retribution after his wife and older son are executed during an invasion by Woody Harrelson’s Colonel McCullough, whose bald head and feverish insanity make him a new-world-order variation of Marlon Brando’s Apocalypse Now nut Colonel Kurtz.
Forced to choose between shepherding his flock to safer terrain, or setting out on a mission of revenge against McCullough, Caesar opts for the latter, thus putting him on the same sort of bloodthirsty course that, in Dawn, doomed his rival Koba (Toby Kebbell, here appearing in haunting visions). He’s accompanied by three comrades, as well as Bad Ape and a young human girl (Amiah Miller) who’s mysteriously mute and given the name Nova—two of the numerous details aimed at setting up War as a direct lead-in to 1968’s Charlton Heston-headlined original. Along their journey, Caesar is forced to introspectively assess, and reassess, the virtuousness of his plan, as he comes face to face with the myriad consequences of violence and eye-for-an-eye justice. Throughout, Reeves treads a fine line between embracing and critiquing Caesar’s impulses, which is in keeping with his film’s nuanced portrait of its ape protagonists, who (unlike the one-note homo sapiens villains) are repeatedly portrayed as the story’s most “human” figures.
Captures, skirmishes, and moral dilemmas follow, not only for Caesar and Colonel McCullough, but also for a group of traitorous apes led by giant Red (Ty Olsson), who’s sided with the humans yet, no matter his loyalty to their extermination cause, has been spray-painted with the slave-ish moniker “donkey.” As has always been the case with this franchise, War is awash in symbolism, including internment camps, crucifixions and a proto-Eden replete with a tree of life. Most of its allegory, however, flows from McCullough, a fascistic tyrant who describes the human-simian clash as “a holy war,” and plans to eradicate the apes as well as build a giant wall. The reason for that structure has nothing to do with the apes, though; rather, it’s to fortify his base against military factions that oppose his plans to wipe out any and all humans who’ve transformed into non-verbal savages courtesy of the very virus that gave apes advanced life.
McCullough is an unmistakable Trump stand-in, and while War’s central metaphor works best when not dissected too thoroughly (a situation that also holds for its ancestors), it does thrive as a timely portrait of the madness that comes from irrational fear of “the other”—since the apes just want to be left alone, and didn’t create the plague that’s decimating humanity—and the self-destruction that invariably follows in its wake. No matter what representational value one places on its simian characters, Reeves’ film radiates a deep, abiding sympathy for the misunderstood, marginalized and victimized. All the while, it simultaneously recognizes that even the virtuous can fall prey to their worst instincts, and that combative personal, political, and social issues are often exacerbated by a lack of reason and courage.
Harrelson stares and sneers with fanatical relish, but War is ultimately a two-man show, with Reeves giving the material an aesthetic polish and pulse-pounding energy that elevates it above the typical summer-move pack, and Andy Serkis again bringing commanding complexity and grace to Caesar. Already the undisputed king of motion-capture performance thanks to his turns in both this franchise and The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies (in which he famously embodied Gollum), Serkis here imbues his ape king with an imposing gravity and nobility marred by inner turmoil, if not an outright ugly streak. Even when the film’s bleakness threatens to become borderline-oppressive, he proves a compelling, conflicted hero of a classical—or should I say, primal—sort.