The old adage that “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone” is perhaps best illustrated by the resurgent Planet of the Apes series, which sees its final chapter, the maddeningly titled War for the Planet of the Apes (every other movie has a “of” in it, guys! Why change this shit up right now?), hit theaters everywhere on July 14. Though we may not be paving over paradise to put up a parking lot, we are about to lose series maestro Matt Reeves to the DC Extended Universe, and any replacement will most definitely lack the weird power that he’s brought to these movies.
Thankfully, he’s going out with a serious bang, and Reeves has given us a truly wonderful ending to his contributions to Apes lore. War for the Planet of the Apes is bleak as all hell, but it’s an excellent and measured conclusion to our most underrated science-fiction franchise, full of the brilliant Weta effects work that we’ve come to know and love but endowed with a purpose that’s been lost since the ’60s. This is the real fuckin’ deal.
When we last left Caesar (Andy Serkis), Ape King and the last son of James Franco, he’d just triumphed over his nemesis Koba (Toby Kebbell) while breaking his only true law: Ape shall not kill ape. In the years that have passed by, shit has continuously got more real for our simian protagonists, and they’ve found themselves embroiled in a gigantic war with the last vestiges of the United States military, their ranks filled with apes — Koba’s former soldiers — as well as men. The apes wish to flee to greener pastures, filled with sand and sun, and they decide to flee the Pacific Northwest where they’ve made their home for so long. Before they can get moving, the leader of human soldiers, Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), decides that it’s time to cut the head off the beast, and attempts to assassinate Caesar in his home. This attempt fails, and results in an even bigger tragedy for the Ape King. As such, Caesar leaves his home and his people in order to kill the Colonel, and finds himself confronting the bloodthirsty rage in his own heart — an anger which reminds him darkly of his old enemy.
It’s Reeves’ finest hour as a director, containing all of the skill and pathos he succeeded in adding to the already-potent Apes revival, and none of the CGI extravaganza bloat that almost derailed the last film. There are two fascinating action sequences that bookend War for the Planet of the Apes, and it’d be a crime to spoil their specifics for you, but they’re some the most elegantly-crafted action in a blockbuster film that you’re likely to see all summer long. There’s little of the cacophony of that surrounds and resounds in every Michael Bay frame here, just cold and beautiful precision that subverts expectations and delights at every turn. He effortlessly transitions between genre, from its initial war-movie stylings to its road-movie second act to its prison break finale, and navigates the challenges of each approach with the daring and mastery of a trapeze artist. To put it plainly, those who have their doubts about Reeves helming a Batman movie should stuff it and just be glad that someone this skilled is next up to the plate.
That said, those expecting the gigantic Ape v. Human: Dawn of Bananas that Fox has been advertising since the debut of the first trailer last year may want to brace themselves for disappointment. Yet, the Apes franchise has never been about exhaustive scenes of warfare or even action in general, really, so it’s not a gigantic loss once you realize that you’re watching some of the most mature filmmaking you’re likely to see in the multiplex this year.
The quiet moments between the simian protagonists remain the most compelling part of this series, and free of excessive bombast, they’re allowed to ferment a little longer this time around. It’s absolutely astonishing how audiences will flock to see a movie that is, for the most part, silent and subtitled, as many of its most important characters communicate exclusively through sign language, and the humans are significantly further removed than they’ve ever been. There’s no James Franco or Jason Clarke to constantly communicate with Caesar and company throughout the film, or to distract from the attention here, and the fact that Fox trusts Reeves enough here to maintain a decent pace and maintain the tension he’s established is just wonderful. The sound design, as well, is doubly impressive given the amounts of silence on display, and there’s a dense and interesting sonic texture to each environment the characters find themselves in, be it forest or snow-capped peak, and it’s absolutely impressive. See this film in a large-format theater, please; you already know the cinematography from master Michael Seresin is worth the investment if you’ve seen the prior films, but the sound deserves the prestige format as much as anything else. Similarly with the top-notch score from Michael Giacchino, which provides an interesting tether to the films of long ago through evocative blaring horns during battle sequences, and quietly gorgeous piano during reflective moments.
Per usual, Serkis is utterly brilliant here — it still is astonishing how much care and thought he puts into his performances, and the elder Caesar is an impressive and imposing figure, though occasionally one-dimensional, given how intensely serious and stoic he’s tasked with being throughout the runtime (though you could say the same about any Moses figure). Thankfully, he’s surrounded by his excellent sidekicks from the previous films, chimp Rocket (Terry Notary) and orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), who prevent Serkis from descending too far down into the brooding rabbit hole. Shockingly enough, I’m about to give mad praise to Steve Zahn, who appears as “Bad Ape,” a new character whose origins are fun and his performance is doubly so. He’s basically playing a chimpanzee who was separated from birth with Mark Rylance, as they have similar ways of speaking and expressions, and Zahn’s occasionally quite funny in the role, never coming close enough to the perilous comic relief cliff that the actor typically finds himself falling off.
As far as the damn dirty humans go, Harrelson, as the fascistic Colonel McCullough, makes the grandest impression, and out of all of the actors who’ve taken a paycheck villain role like this (Tom Felton and David Oyelowo in the first, an underwhelming Gary Oldman in the second) he’s both the most involved and the gamest for whatever the film brings his way. He’s a lot like Gary Busey in the ’90s, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. Before Busey was a walking Peter Bagge comic character embarrassing himself on national television, he had a particular and interesting way of transitioning from humor to menace to empathetic depth within the same sentence, and Harrelson evokes a similar shifting way here. He’s a dynamic and interesting figure, a truly great fit and contrast with the hardened and bitter Caesar that we follow through the rest of the film and if we’re going to have to do the “we’re the same, you and I” plotline in every blockbuster nowadays, let it be done with the unstated grace that Reeves and his writers have crafted here.
There’s a darkness at the heart of War for the Planet of the Apes that plenty will find unpalatable or read as juvenile, but they have perhaps only experienced a Planet of the Apes film from the perspective of a post-Cold War youth ideology, where the fear of MAD and more is regulated to the camp bin with the rest of the ’60s makeup and Charlton Heston shouts that define this series in the eyes of the popular consciousness. They’ll forget that this is a series in which the world is destroyed in the second film of the original five, eulogized with one of the greatest nihilist epitaphs in history, cinema or otherwise. Those folks will miss the essential point of this franchise: That the folly of man put us in this place of death and cruelty, that our arrogance and fallen nature will endanger everything that we know and love, that our so-called superiority to the rest of the world is built on fabulously shaky ground. War, in its peculiar way, recasts this nihilism for its own modern purpose and succeeds wildly, by finding what the plot-heavy originals never could: The heart at the center of its nightmare.
‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ opens July 14; follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.