Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Director: Matt Reeves
Writers: Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves
Composer: Michael Giacchino
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn
Rated: PG-13
War for the Planet of the Apes is the third and final installment in the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy. The story follows Caesar, the leader of the genetically enhanced ape tribe, as he struggles to end the war between apes and humans. After his wife and son are killed by the Colonel, who leads the human army, Caesar sends his tribe to find a new home while he embarks on a mission to take his revenge.

 

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: There is a hefty amount of fight scenes. Human soldiers are beaten to death, while several apes are whipped. Characters of both species are shot, and some graphic wounds are shown.
Language/Crude Humor: Since the movie is fairly light on actual dialogue, there’s almost no swearing, although g*dd****t is used once.
Sexual Content: None, unless you count the apes not wearing clothes.
Spiritual Content: None.
Alcohol/Drug Reference: The Colonel drinks from a flask several times.
Other Negative Content: The plot mainly stems from Caesar succumbing to hatred and revenge, though this is repeatedly questioned by other characters.
Positive Content: Many of the characters prove willing to sacrifice themselves for others. Death and killing are portrayed as horrific events, even at times when lethal force is necessary, and no one is treated as being disposable. Concepts such as forgiveness and mercy are promoted without being trivialized.

Review

In the conclusion to the Planet of the Apes reboot series, Caesar, leader of the intellectually-enhanced ape tribe, suffers terrible personal losses at the hands of the Colonel, leader of the humans’ Alpha Omega unit. As his tribe searches for a peaceful home, Caesar succumbs to his darker instincts and sets out to kill the Colonel himself.
One of the best ways to create great art is finding unique ways to turn handicaps into strengths. War for the Planet of the Apes is a movie that understands this. It’s a film that has to operate with very little dialogue, yet it uses this limitation to breathe life into every other aspect of the movie.
While the apes have their own language of grunts and screeches, and many of them use and understand sign language, only a select few are capable of speech. The result is that there are large periods of time where no one on screen actually talks. This unfamiliar lack of sound gives the story not only a sense of solemnity, but a sense of purpose that I seldom feel when watching or reading anything. Sure, there are subtitles, but knowing what the apes are saying does little to take away from the grim audial effect we get from not actually hearing them say it.
The impact of having most of the characters remain speechless gives the entire movie an atmosphere of solemnity, and it’s this atmosphere that connects every part of the film and turns it into a single brilliant whole. Sometime after I finished watching the movie, I thought for a while about exactly why it seemed to come together so well, how it managed to stay so deep and engaging even when the action and the pacing were slow. The answer I came to is that everything in the movie evokes a similar feeling: from the plight of the apes, to Caesar’s dark thirst for revenge, to his friends’ desperation to help him–even before we see a flake of snow on the ground, everything just feels like winter.
This is a fitting motif for the end of a series. It also plays into the heaviness of the movie’s themes, as Caesar’s quest to seek out vengeance is surrounded by an air of sadness and despair. Without the usual distraction of dialogue, the impact of every action seems magnified. Even the smallest acts of kindness become powerful amid the landscape of hatred. Every death, even those of “expendable” characters, feels weighty and tragic. Watching the characters as they’re forced into acts of brutality is at once sobering and horrifying.
Especially poignant is the character of Caesar himself. Embroiled in him are all of the movie’s themes: his struggle between his desire for revenge–an idea he has previously warred against–and his desire for peace and to protect his tribe is a significant part of what keeps the movie captivating all the way through. The choices he has to make are eventually contrasted with those of the Colonel, and the interaction leaves both the characters and the audience without any easy answers.
The dearth of dialogue helps again here, strengthening Caesar’s character by contrasting him with his accompanying tribemates. For the vast majority of the movie, he’s the only character who speaks out loud, which very effectively sets him apart from the others onscreen. This distinction powerfully reinforces his sense of isolation from his tribe and makes his journey all the more compelling, meshing with Serkis’s performance to highlight his anguished descent into darkness.

The soundtrack and camerawork are also excellent, and a huge part of making the winter motif as enchanting as it is. Either slow music or no music is played during the movie’s first half, as more and more tragedies are discovered, and when the action sequences in the movie’s second half give rise to more up-tempo songs, the scenes feel truly heroic. The slow moving cameras also match wonderfully with the film’s relative silence to deepen every moment’s emotional impact.
War for the Planet of the Apes not only has plenty of entertaining characters and gripping plot developments, but also boasts an array of symbolism and nuance that can be hard to find in popular cinema. I don’t think I’ve yet even scratched the surface of what makes this such a strong movie. Everything simply blends together seamlessly. Even the end credits feature a quiet, thoughtful track, and the audience in my theater exited almost in silence. Paying attention to these sorts of details is another key part of turning good movies into great ones, and Matt Reeves and his team certainly deserve high marks for this effort. This is one movie I wouldn’t mind seeing again.

Positives

+ Excellent filmography + Engaging characters + Compelling story + Thought provoking themes

Negatives

- Could have employed more viewpoints to help flesh out themes

The Bottom Line

A beautifully put together film filled with powerful themes. This is a movie well worth watching, and a strong finish to the new Planet of the Apes franchise.

 

8.9

Ian Hancock

Ian is a speculative fiction writer with an English degree from the University of the Fraser Valley. When he's not writing, he enjoys strategy games, sports, anime, and finding new ways to make fun of life.

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