War for the Planet of the Apes ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I admit it, I'm not particularly familiar with the Planet Of The Apes series; I maybe caught the last 5 minutes of the iconic 1968 original one Christmas morning back when it was still the 20th century (which, in my relatively short lifetime, feels like an eternity ago), and am mostly aware ot it through parodies and references in general pop culture. So yes, that means I've never seen so much as a single frame from any of the mostly-forgotten original series sequels, and while I saw 2001's Tim Burton "reimagining" of Apes twice in the theater for some reason (hey, I was a kid!), it's been prequel'd out of the timeline for a while, so it's no longer relevant (thankfully).

Heck, the just-okay reviews for the initial Apes prequel, Rise Of, kept me from bothering to check it out, but thankfully, Matt Reeves' sequel, 2014's excellent Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, functioned as a callback-light, mostly-standalone entry that stood on its own two cinematic feet, and fortunately for us, Reeves has returned to finish out this trilogy strong with War For The Planet Of The Apes, a movie that more than made me care for these damn dirty apes, and then some.

If you're unfamiliar with the ongoing story of the Apes prequels, or if you just need a little refresher, films follow the story of "Caeser", the leader of a clan of ultra-intelligent apes (natch) who were the result of an experiment by some evil biotech company (also natch). Ironically, the viral-based drug that made the apes what they are today is also what paved the way for them to inherit the Earth, as the so-called "Simian Flu" wiped out approximately 99.8% of the planet's current rulers, namely, us. In Dawn, despite some initially strong tensions, Caeser attempted to lead his clan to coexist with a nearby colony of human survivors, but relations between the two factions naturally "devolved", so to speak, and what remains of the military was called in to try to wipe out the apes at the end of that film, leading to the "War" that's been waging for some time at the beginning of this one.

But the surprising thing about War is how it avoids just being an unnecessary prequel to a classic film that never needed it, but rather, simply uses the setup of that famous "apes rule the Earth" scenario as a vehicle for showing us Caeser's personal struggles to keep his clan alive and together in the face of a genocidal enemy species. As he grapples with an inner hatred, the memories of a tortorous past, and an overwhelming desire for vengeance against humans growing inside of his simian heart, it really is remarkable how much I came to care for the pain of a non-human, completely computer-generated character who often communicates in nothing more than a quick grunt, subtitled sign language, or merely a look in his ever more expressive eyes. Of course, a lot of credit has to go to the effects wizards at WETA, but they wouldn't have anything to work off in the first place if it weren't for the motion-captured work of Mr. Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, whose tortured, weary performance shines through strong here, even if the man himself is never physically glimpsed.

Matt Reeves & company refuse at any point to treat Caeser's character as some sort of dehumanized, CGI party trick, instead, rendering him more human than most of the actual humans here, who, for the most part, are either completely silent, militantly antagonistic, or almost literally faceless during the slightly deus ex machina-y climax. Not all of them are so blank, however, as Woody Harrelson makes for the perfect foe for Caeser as "The Colonel", a rogue military leader whose forces have turned into more of a cult under his leadership, almost looking up to him as God on Earth, the man who will surely lead what's left of their endangered species to salvation from becoming an extinct one, no matter the cost (and it turns out to be very high indeed).

The Colonel is absolutely a character who qualifies as the technical term of "crazy", but not in any shallow, one-dimensionally Hollywood way; not to spoil the best plot point of the film, but there's a fairly clever and unexpected development here that, when taken in concert with humanity's already desperate situation in the first place, renders The Colonel's motivations, if not quite sympathetic, at the very least, more than understandable. It is this overall level of depth, the rich characterizations, epic direction, and haunting, post-apocalyptic atmosphere that turns War For The Planet Of The Apes into something truly special, as a highly satisfying end to this trilogy, and one of the best movies of the year so far. Of course, Hollywood's already planning on making yet another unnecessary sequel to this, yet again not knowing when to just leave a good thing well enough alone already, but no matter what the future holds for this cinematic Planet, this War, at least, will be one to remember.

Final Score: 8.5

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