War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

After a shaky start to the Planet of the Apes soft reboot, the series kicked it into high gear with its second chapter and has continued that momentum here with War for the Planet of the Apes, the third installment. This time out, humans and apes are officially at war. Except they already were last time. So why does this one get to be called “war”? There isn’t even a whole lot of war scenes or action in the movie! But there is an internal fight at its core, so that’s likely what we’re talking about. But there’s also still a war going on. Clever, movie.

Following the events of the last film, Caesar (Andy Serkis), an intelligent chimpanzee who speaks English and leads the rest of the apes, has taken his group to the woods in hopes of avoiding the humans with whom they’re at war. They’re eventually located by a group of soldiers led by a Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who kill, among others, Caesar’s wife and one of his children. Caesar and a couple of other apes head out to seek vengeance upon the Colonel—all while the other apes head to the purported safety of a faraway desert.

That … would probably be a good movie in its own right. A few vigilante apes pursuing and picking off a bunch of humans with little regard for their lives could make for a fun time. That’s not what we get, though. The movie takes a couple of different turns, becomes very talkative and features very little action until the end, and becomes more about its characters and ideas than it is about the titular “war.” And you know what? It’s still really good! Much like how Dawn had strong, well-developed characters, War does the same and has a more emotionally involving story.

Caesar has been the standout of the series thus far, and he gets to shine again in this chapter. Further adding to his character are the visions of Koba (Toby Kebbell), from the last film, and his realization that maybe, just maybe, the two aren’t so dissimilar after all. Andy Serkis, with the help of motion-capture, knocks it out of the park once again. It would be wonderful to see him nominated for major awards for this performance.

It’s a smart, entertaining, and thrilling film that intimately details the internal struggles of its main character.

He’s not the only impressive character. The Colonel gets a decent amount of development, particularly in a lengthy exchange between him and Caesar midway through in which he basically explains his entire rationale—but then also follows it up with small touches throughout the film. And, yes, this gets political. Harrelson is great, and it’s fun to see him play this kind of role. The renegade ape group (“RenegApes”?) also winds up adopting a young girl (Amiah Miller), who for reasons that make some degree of sense—and help set up elements of the original 1968 film—can’t speak. Miller is expressive and far more impressive than many child actors are.

Most of War for the Planet of the Apes involves characters talking, either in English or sign language, about the events that are going on, the things they’re feeling, and the ideas for which they’re fighting. Nobody’s black and white, which is wonderful. It’s not much of an action movie, but almost the entire thing is suspenseful. Tensions escalate throughout, and it feels like at any moment they could boil over. And when they finally do … it’s almost a bit of a letdown.

That’s really the only area at which War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t quite a success. The action takes a step back from the last film. Maybe it would’ve been hard to top it, but with action so sparse, what we do get needed to impress. There’s a set-piece near the beginning and a bigger one at the end, but while it’s emotionally satisfying it isn’t as much of a visceral delight, especially with how its main portion concludes. “Convenience” is the word that comes to mind.

Still, War for the Planet of the Apes is a very enjoyable movie. It’s a smart, entertaining, and thrilling film that intimately details the internal struggles of its main character, as well as those of the people and apes surrounding him. They’re complex individuals, which is a rarity out of a summer blockbuster. The whole thing is emotionally compelling, the ape effects look as good as they always have, and the entire experience is great.

Conclusion: While it’s a little lacking in the action department, War for the Planet of the Apes is a very good movie.

Recommendation: If you’ve seen the earlier movies or just want a smart summer blockbuster, see War for the Planet of the Apes.

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