Caesar (Andy Serkis), the ape who has pushed for peace between his kind and man, pays a high price for his tolerance even as humans continue to hunt his kind in War for the Planet of the Apes, the third film in the Planet of the Apes reboot that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). Director Matt Reeves and his co-screenwriter Mark Bomback gift Steve Zahn with his most memorable role in years and allow Woody Harrelson, playing a crazed human soldier, to riff on Marlon Brando and Apocalypse Now. But what makes this movie the best of the trio and elevates it to something truly magnificent is Caesar. It should now be apparent to the entire movie-going world that Serkis could easily play King Lear as a motion-capture ape. He has that much gravity.
Caesar’s own good nature is what leads to disaster when he expects kindness shown to humans to be returned. Instead, his actions rain holy hell down on the apes. It is a disaster for the tribe and a personal tragedy for Caesar whose roiling anger leads to both questionable decisions and a looming confrontation with the Colonel (Harrelson), a human dedicated to eradicating apes. With visions of the late, murderous chimpanzee Koba (Toby Kebbell) and his warning about the true nature of man/ape relations dancing in his head, Caesar is a man on a mission. But even as he determines to extract a terrible revenge on his enemies, Caesar’s own true nature can’t help but assert itself, especially when it comes to a little girl (Amiah Miller) who comes to depend on the kindness of primates and Bad Ape (Zahn), a mangy, fearful former zoo animal who has internalized every human insult.
As with the previous chapters in this Apes saga, the line between motion-capture apes and human actors is seamless as Reeves plunges us into a wholly believable world. The nod to Apocalypse Now, which is driven home with a hammer (let’s just say a particular piece of graffiti is wholly unnecessary—we get it), is a bit heavy-handed but still apt. Zahn is terrific, providing some comic relief and also a great deal of poignancy as a frightened creature who discovers reserves of courage he never realized he had. War for the Planet of the Apes’ action scenes pack a wallop, and even relative minor moments are filled with tension. The stakes are the highest for Caesar and the rest of the apes, and the film never loses sight of that.
Then there’s Serkis, proving once more that CGI skin in no way compromises performance. This is an actor at the top of his game and he proves it each time he returns to Caesar. That so far he’s been ignored during awards season is a scandal that ought to be rectified. As a motion-capture actor, as an actor, period, Serkis is second to none and he has never been better than in War for the Planet of the Apes as he fully inhabits Caesar’s huge heart, revealing his grief, rage, pain, and also his valor and love and dedication to his ape family (and those he embraces as extensions of his family). War for the Planet of the Apes packs an emotional wallop and Serkis is a big reason for that. This may be a summer popcorn movie; it is also one of the best films of the year. –Pam Grady