War for the Planet of the Apes review

Here is the third film in this latest Planet of the Apes franchise (more a reimagining than a remake or reboot) and it continues the very fine work that began with 2011's Rise and 2014's Dawn. Set a couple of years after the events of Dawn, apes and humans are now at war (thanks to the efforts of the traitorous Koba, whose memory still lingers), but Caesar (Andy Serkis) is keen to pursue peace. When a human attack on his compound ends in tragedy, Caesar is keen to seek revenge and kill human leader Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson). He sets off for the human compound accompanied by orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), chimp Rocket (Terry Notary) and gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and along the way they meet up with Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who has also learned to talk, and Nova (Amiah Miller), a human girl who cannot speak.

For a film with the word war in its title, there are very few actual battles in War For the Planet of the Apes; the war is really an internal conflict for Caesar. He is determined to stop the bloodshed – "I didn't start this war," he says – and just wants the apes to be left alone to live in peace away from the humans. The humans, of course, have other ideas and he is forced to go against his principles and against the advice of his friends. It's a journey both physical and spiritual, and leads to Caesar realising that man and ape are not that dissimilar.

The journey from the 1970s apes films to this trilogy has also been an interesting one. Back then, the apes were people in costumes, with prosthetic masks that limited their ability to emote. These modern films use a combination of performance-captire technology and computer artistry to create the apes, and in this latest outing we have the most realistic looking apes yet. Caesar, Maurice and the rest of the simians look so amazingly lifelike that it's hard to believe they are actually CGI creations. What really helps is the powerful performances we get from those behind the masks – especially Serkis in the lead role of Caesar, ably supported by Konoval, Notary and the rest. But this really is Serkis’s film - this new trilogy of films has really been Caesar’s journey, and her Andy gives his strongest performance yet - particularly when confronted with Harrelson’s mad colonel (very much channelling Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now).

war for the planet of the apes 2017 movie embedThere are strong parallels with that classic Copolla war film, as well as allusions to other classic war and PoW films. There are also some lovely nods to the original apes films, particularly the first two. Nova is clearly a nod to the mate of Charlton Heston’s astronaut Taylor in Planet of the Apes, and there are plenty of references to the mutant human “doomsday bomb” cult from Beneath. And the Colonel has branded his troops with alpha and omega symbols, to represent how they are “The Beginning and the End”. There's also a lovely throwaway dig at the late president Ronald Reagan – one of McCullough's soldiers has "Bedtime for Bonzo" inscribed on his helmet. 

Part journey drama and part escape movie, War for the Planet of the Apes is not your typical summer blockbuster. It could easily be nothing more than a Battle for the Planet of the Apes rehash, but it's far deeper and smarter than that. Humanity is on the back foot, and McCullough knows that the apes are set to take over; that they very much have the upper hand. It's a film that asks big questions about civilisation and humanity. The original five films were a (mostly) fun and sometimes silly sci-fi series about what happens when the apes take over the planet. This new franchise takes that central idea much more seriously. With the original films form the 1970s, you were very much on the side of the humans; here, though, you will find yourself rooting for the apes all the way. There is real heft and emotional weight to this film, all the more surprising when you realise that the main characters are mostly men in funny skin-tights suits covered with little balls.

Feeling more like a classic western at times than a futuristic sci-fi film, and featuring a brilliant score from Michael Giacchino, the beautifully-crafted War for the Planet of the Apes will move you, thrill you, make you think and make you laugh in equal measure. It's a fitting conclusion to one of the finest film trilogies we have seen in a very long time. These apes, together, are very strong indeed.

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Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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