Review: Reboot franchise scores again with 'War for the Planet of the Apes'

The ape king’s saintly tolerance gives way to an all-consuming desire for revenge.

The ape king’s saintly tolerance gives way to an all-consuming desire for revenge. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Hollywood takes deserved flak for its constant rollout of sequels, reboots, and adaptations.

But War for the Planet of the Apes -- a bit of all three -- proves it’s quality that counts. The rebooted Apes movies have been holistically some of the most enjoyable of the last decade. War, while falling short of its predecessors, builds on their strong legacy.

The story picks up two years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his ape compadres are holed up in the woods when they’re attacked by an extremist human military company.

Extensive casualties ensue on both sides, but the apes hold off their assailants. Caesar spares the surviving humans. Knowing more will come, Caesar decides to move camp, but before the apes can do so, the military outfit’s leader, Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), strikes again.

Something finally breaks in Caesar. The ape king’s saintly tolerance gives way to an all-consuming desire for revenge.

From here, War plays out like a combination of road movie, Spartacus, and a Shakespearean tragedy, with another layer of complexity wrapped around Caesar, a character whose arc over the course of these three movies solidifies him as one of the great movie heroes.

Caesar’s rise and internal psychological struggles in dealing with both humans and his own camp provide a fascinating exploration of power and responsibility. In War, we see him put through hell to better appreciate his fortitude.

These are trying times. Will he throw out the ideals of previous movies? What will he do to McCullough? Is the quest for revenge more important than the survival of his kind?

The success of the rebooted Apes saga has largely hinged on Caesar’s intricate development, but these are well-rounded movies, equal parts spectacle and character study. The filmmakers continue to find novel ways to expand on the terror of sentient gorillas storming through the trees and chimps wielding spears and guns. They continue to round out the cruelty of humankind and the hardness that comes with fear. And they find new ways to differentiate their action sequences from those of other epic blockbusters.

The CGI is unrivaled and helps ground the movie in reality. The characters themselves are at times so accurately rendered that you question whether or not they’re real, a rarity in film. When a computer can make their characters do anything, there’s a tendency for filmmakers to lean into hyper-stylizations at the expense of any substance. War shows restraint, making for a plausible plot line that still dazzles visually.

It’s also more subtle than prior films. Despite its name, it really has only a couple of major action sequences, and even when events come to a head, expectations are subverted. Some people will enjoy the measured nature of the film, while others might find it a bit too long and lacking.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will always be the best of the three, but War for the Planet of the Apes is a serviceable third entry.

War for the Planet of the Apes
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn
Rated: PG-13
Theater: Area theaters, starts July 14