Here, at last, is a big Hollywood movie that puts its $150 million budget to work and reaps the returns. All the money seems to have gone into creating the most believable CGI apes the world has ever seen, but, being a war movie, there are also explosions, gunfire, and in a key moment, an avalanche. The skill of all these effects is so superior we don’t even notice them. Instead, we’re trapped by the charisma of Caesar, the chimp that begins as a prophetic militaristic hero and later evolves into a leader with biblical responsibility.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a crowning achievement, not just as a blockbuster to fill multiplexes but as a definitive seminar on the human condition. This is a compassionate film that is bookended by battles and filled in the middle with quietness and reflection. It is often sparse but never empty. There is a certain kind of commendation reserved for movies bold enough to string together extended scenes in which the only dialogue must be read on screen while computer-animated apes gesture frantically in sign language without boring us to tears.
The situation between the über intelligent apes and the equally protective humans has disintegrated into all-out war. Caesar (a phenomenal Andy Serkis in motion-capture) maintains a stronghold in the forest but hears of a land of milk and honey that rests comfortably away from the terrifying gaze of The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a rogue commander who has had to make horrific decisions in his past and will no doubt have to make more before the movie’s end. The plot is essentially a quest of vengeance, after The Colonel mistakenly assassinates members of Caesar’s clan. But there is a grander scheme at play here. A fight for survival that will determine the balance of power on the planet. It’s all very serious stuff.
Director Matt Reeves, who established the tone of this franchise going forward with 2014’s utterly brilliant Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, approaches the grim material from a place of warmth. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt so strongly for a character composed of pixels, yet Caesar is entirely gripping as the commander-in-chief of a species destined for peace. In the hands of Andy Serkis, he emerges as a well-worn figure of respect and stature; a keen tactician with a heart of gold and a face chiselled out of strife.
Harrelson is equally impressive as the anguished foe, fearful that a mutation in the disease, which nearly exterminated the human race, will drop him down a rung on the evolutionary ladder. Some humans are already exhibiting sub-intellect behaviour, like the little girl Nova (Amiah Miller), whose presence in the film is a neat little warning that the only way for humans to coexist with the animal kingdom is if our higher thinking is severed.
This is that rare blockbuster in which all the pieces fit snugly together and the entire picture makes perfect sense. It may not be as fresh as Rise of the Planet of the Apes or as emotionally complex as Dawn, but why should it be? There is a magical moment in which Nova crosses a military courtyard to feed undernourished prisoners, in full view of station security, and somehow manages to evade capture. It is a gentle touch, a powerful miracle of war, and one of the best scenes in one of the best movies of the year.