War For The Planet Of The Apes Is A Harrowing Ape Epic

20th Century Fox

Coming on the heels of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes—a uniquely impressive sequel that greatly improved upon Rise of the Planet of the ApesWar for the Planet of the Apes never had much chance of surpassing its predecessor.

But here’s the good news: even if director Matt Reeves and company take a small step backwards, they still deliver the summer’s most ambitious blockbuster, a mythical ape epic that chooses to reinvent rather than recycle, capitalizing on technological breakthroughs to create the most impressive portrait of primates ever realized on film.

Two years after Dawn, humans and apes are still fighting for control of the planet. While Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his inner circle are keeping their distance from their rival species, their safe haven is abruptly interrupted by a military attack. As the battle comes to a close, a fanatical leader known as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) commits a brutal act of violence against Caesar’s family.

Feeling a conflicted hunger for revenge, Caesar and a gang of his closest allies—including Rocket (Terry Notary), Maurice (Karin Konoval), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and a mute human girl known as Nova (Amiah Miller)—travel great distances, eventually confronting their ape-hating enemies in a battle that takes a devastating toll on both sides.

If Rise was primarily a human effort and Dawn struck a relatively equal balance of humans and apes, War takes the next logical step, devoting the majority of its screen time to its primate characters. This is a logical choice, as the motion capture technology used to create these apes has finally reached a level of sophistication that makes it possible to fill every frame with creatures that seem effortlessly authentic.

Being impressed by special effects may seem somewhat quaint in 2017, but these apes are also a feat of performance. The actors playing these roles deliver an emotional credibility we’ve never before seen from computer-generated characters. Add this to the fact that they spend much of their screen time with almost no human presence to anchor their efforts and War feels like a uniquely daring technical accomplishment.

With all that in mind, how does this film fall short of Dawn? While War’s technical achievements are undeniably astonishing and Reeves continues to demonstrate a visual assurance that sets him apart from most of his franchise-directing peers, this film’s dramatic strategies aren’t altogether effective. For one, isolating the apes in nature with a minimum of human interaction for much of the film creates a frustrating kind of waiting game.

It’s clear that Caesar is incensed and his appetite for revenge will eventually lead somewhere, but the film gets bogged down in uneventful anticipation that leaves little room for urgency or surprise.

Some viewers may also resist the film’s grim, humourless outlook—for all its innovation, War isn’t an especially fun movie—but Reeves’s film has the confidence and real world echoes to justify this seriousness of purpose. When full-scale war finally breaks out, you may even forget that you’re watching a movie about apes, as their crusade for justice—fuelled by grief, frustration, and defiance—delivers high stakes drama of undeniable impact.

For all the groundbreaking technical marvels of War, the most lasting impression is left by a relatively old-fashioned virtue: its harrowing finale. Stirring drama may not be cutting edge, but a blockbuster this deeply felt is a rare treat.

War for the Planet of the Apes arrives in theatres today. Check out the trailer below: