War for the Planet of the Apes recaps the events of the previous two films with a couple of paragraphs of expository text. As the movie begins, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are still trying to leave a peaceful, isolated life in the woods, but the surviving humans continue to pursue them. Soldiers from the North, led by a dangerous, fanatical colonel (Woody Harrelson), manage to find the apes’ sanctuary, and end up killing Caesar’s wife and son. As the apes trek to find a new safe haven, Caesar is consumed by his rage, and goes on a journey to exact his revenge. The thing about this series is that it has always been designed to lead up to the events of the very first Planet of the Apes. It was easy enough to forget that in the last installment, which didn’t at all seem interested in laying out the components that would eventually lead to the familiar circumstances depicted in Franklin Schaffner’s 1968 sci-fi classic. This third film, however, is much more intent on laying out the groundwork, some of its plot elements directed toward herding the narrative into what will inevitably be a straight remake of Planet of the Apes.This hurts the film somewhat, which tends to be better when it is unfettered by the larger demands of franchise filmmaking. This is, for the most part, a really unconventional action blockbuster. It borrows elements from the Western, with its ape hero transforming into a long, horse-riding gunman dead set on getting retribution. A posse follows him around, and they trek through a ruined wasteland, following the trail of madness left by their target. It is a big film that gets remarkably small at times, its main characters necessarily having few words between them, the real struggle emerging from within the soul of its ape hero.But then the movie turns into something else for the second half, and the story starts to feel a little schematic. It devotes more of its time to big developments that would lead the series closer to the future envision in the original film. Its references to other pieces of culture become much more overt, and the movie suffers in comparison. And in getting to those points, the script often makes these perilous leaps of logic that detract from the impact of the moment. And through it all, Caesar becomes a much less interesting character. The movie commits to choices that seem to run counter to his overall arc.Through it all, however, the movie maintains an admirable level of craft. The particular style of ruin depicted in the film feels unique and compelling. And the computer generated apes remain a technical marvel of weird expressiveness. Andy Serkis is once again terrific as Caesar. The two previous times he played this role, there was some debate about whether or not this kind of performance deserves more awards recognition. It is likely that there will be talk again. He is joined this time by a scene-stealing Steve Zahn, who expresses a very different kind of pathos. Woody Harrelson brings his folksy charm to the ostensible villain of the film, bringing interesting texture to an underwritten role.War for the Planet of the Apes doesn’t quite reach the heights of the previous installment, but it’s clear that it’s working under much more severe limitations. It couldn’t get as weird, or as dark. It couldn’t be as open-ended. It’s clear now that the franchise is set on closing the loop, and this film had to get all the setup in on the way to trying to halfheartedly tell this story about Caesar embracing his failings and humanity trying to hold on to what little that they have.
WAR OF THE PLANET OF THE APES IS NOW SHOWING IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE