Rebooted franchises reek of cheap Hollywood cash grabs, but in light of those expectations, the refurbished “Planet of the Apes” franchise pulls off a minor miracle. With “War for the Planet of the Apes,” technological wizardry and first-rate storytelling combine into a bracing action-adventure that concludes the best science fiction trilogy since the original trio of “Star Wars” movies.
That’s not to say the movie’s a flawless achievement, devoid of ham-fisted dialogue or predictable plot twists that often hobble movies designed for mass market appeal. But insofar as the premise is concerned, it catapults beyonds the cheesy nature of the material to deliver a serious, gripping big screen achievement elevated by astonishing special effects and filmmaking prowess to match.
The second entry directed by Matt Reeves following 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the dynamic finale continues Reeves’ ability to transform the man-versus-simian premise into a fiery war movie, but finds a way toward a related genre in the process — the prison escape drama. It’s a given that an expensive 21st century sci-fi movie with talking animals, exploding tanks, and jarring machine guns would look and sound great, but Reeves applies these effects with such a measured strategy that they’re always working in service of a greater narrative agenda.
Back in 2011, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” rediscovered potential in the material by envisioning an eerie medical thriller prequel, and the scope has undergone a remarkable transformation in the ensuing years, making the post-apocalyptic backdrop increasingly more pronounced. Once again, evolved chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis) lords over his family and the rest of their clan, which holes up in the wilderness under constant threat from a dwindling population of humans. Flanked by noble orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) along with his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and his youngest son Cornelius (Devyn Dalton), Caesar’s still reeling from the deadly showdown with the militant ape Koba that closed the last film. Koba’s gone, but many of his followers now work in the employ of a nearby military encampment lorded over by the maniacal Colonel (Woody Harrelson), whose men launch a deadly assault on Caesar’s hideaway in the bracing opener.
The breathlessly paced montage of flying bullets and angry monkeys raining down on terrified men, aided by Michael Giacchino’s vibrant score, is a strong indicator of the next-level craftsmanship that distinguishes these movies from so many cacophonous Hollywood spectacles; not only is the action easy to follow, but you care for the motion-captured characters at the center of it, while the humans cower in fear. When Caesar emerges, his expressive face displays the sheer depth of technological possibilities that Serkis mines better than any other working actor today, and the astonishment on the faces of the human prisoners speaks for all of us.
A now-legendary figure, Caesar continues to rule his tribe with a stern commitment to survival at all costs. The opportunity for a new beginning comes from news of a desert hideaway and rushed plans for the clan to track it down — but that falls by the wayside once the Colonel’s men catch up with the apes in a stormy showdown that takes this dark, fantastical premise into even grimmer territory, placing Caesar on a path for revenge that threatens the future of his moral code. This is typical hero’s journey stuff, but it settles into a gripping third act once the bulk of the apes wind up enslaved by the vicious Colonel, leaving Caesar and a small entourage to plot their liberation.
Eventually captured himself, he’s ultimately reliant on the efforts of the survivors he’s reared over the years to mobilize with a sophisticated escape plan to which he’s left as a witness; his eyes exude pride and amazement at an accomplishment that has accumulated over the course of three movies.
Among the other apes, the team gets a boost from a newcomer known as “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), a minuscule source of comic relief whom the other monkeys discover in the wilderness. The petite, wide-eyed figure becomes a key player during the prison showdown, wandering through sewers and peering through holes as the plan comes together. His very appearance suggests a bigger world of ape survivors than Caesar and his cohorts initially thought, and he’s also a welcome surprise in the midst of the pitch-black story, injecting some levity into an otherwise humorless movie.
The encroaching desperation of Caesar’s ordeal unfolds against an icy landscape that has the expressive qualities of a bleak fairy tale — and that’s essentially what we’re watching, under the guise of classic film genre pastiche. The final act is derivative to a fault (think “The Great Escape” or “The Grand Illusion” with a few more big explosions), but the apes’ perseverance freshens up the formula. As with the Western motifs of “Logan” and the WWI battle scenes in “Wonder Woman,” Reeves’ biggest achievement stems from his capacity to resurrect a dormant genre through the framework of snazzy contemporary entertainment.
The human characters prove the movie’s weakest link: Harrelson’s little more than another angry psychopath, terrified by the apes’ potential to rule the planet but unafraid to waste several minutes revealing his entire backstory to Caesar when the occasion calls for it. The only other major human character is the adolescent Nova (Amiah Miller), who’s rendered mute by some unspecified new plague and turns into an honorary member of the apes’ clan. She’s an intriguing character who never quite receives her due, particularly once the movie doubles back to give Caesar his last big moment in the spotlight. But it was inevitable, in a movie that continues the tale of the apes’ dominance, that the other species would suffer by comparison.
For large stretches of time, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is simply a marvel of morbid imagery rarely seen in this kind of American movie. The prison, with its weary, bloodied apes shivering in the ruthless cold, looks like a Siberian gulag crossed with the world’s saddest zoo. It’s just disturbing enough to make the plot for an uprising gain renewed urgency, even as we’ve seen variations on it before.
A far cry from talky philosophical ramblings that distinguished the Charlton Heston original nearly 50 years ago, this movie turns its allegory for social upheaval into an expressionistic marvel of computerized imagery. Even the turbulent showdown of the concluding minutes — as fire and ice rain down from the sky and the Earth rattles with a near-Biblical reckoning — has nothing on the poetic storybook visuals that close the story, and presumably, the franchise as well.
In a sea of effects-driven Hollywood storytelling, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better-directed Hollywood product this year, but “War for the Planet of the Apes” isn’t exactly alone. Released within a six-month window that finds both “Wonder Woman” and “Logan” smartening up blockbuster formulas, and the crass spectacle “Transformers: The Last Knight” underperforming at the box office, there may yet be hope for the Hollywood blockbuster.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” focuses on survivors making their way through a broken world; Reeves, wading his way through a commercial system that doesn’t always prioritize quality, can probably relate.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” opens July 14, 2017.