Matt Reeves’s War for the Planet of the Apes is practically an exercise in literary mythmaking. Following the Shakespearean grandeur of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’s narrative—wherein the great ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) fought down a rebellion by his traitorous second-in-command, Koba—the elder statesman and his tribe find themselves forced into a war with the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), the leader of the military cult Alpha-Omega who’s convinced of his own divinity, and hellbent on ape genocide. After the Colonel launches a surprise attack on Caesar’s village, the apes flee in search of a safer land, and Caesar and his weathered team of close advisors set out to exact revenge. Their journey across the mountains and beaches of the Pacific Northwest evokes the sociological sweep of a western, but by the time Caesar is captured after discovering that his tribe was ambushed on their way to shelter and enslaved by the Colonel, the film has taken on biblical resonances, with Caesar as the Moses to the Colonel’s Pharaoh.
The psychological wars that have made the prequels simmer with tightly wound tensions are given their most cutting treatment yet. In War for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar seems finally torn in two, haunted by the memory of Koba as he struggles to prevent himself from being consumed with hatred toward humanity for what it’s done to the apes. He’s no longer as softhearted as he once was, his face now one of loud confrontation, his every movement a defiance. Aware of his mortality and how he’ll be canonized, there’s a flicker of horror on his face as he recognizes something of himself in the Colonel during their confrontations. The apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are almost entirely fuming in their temperament, but here they display a broader range of moods. Maurice, all twinkling soft eyes and mushy heart, is seen as a creature of love and a vulnerable father figure to the mute human child Nova (Amiah Miller), while the reclusive Bad Ape’s (Steve Zahn) silly antics, very sparingly used, provide comic relief between the film’s intense conflicts.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a film that resides in an ethical grey zone, teeming with grand post-human vistas whose shadings of light and shadow are redolent of how the world is poised between salvation and oblivion. The smattering of secluded ruins blotting mountains and forests—a broken-down truck here, an old home there—makes it seem as if humanity is already part of a bygone era. When the sun occasionally punches through the clouds, it gives everything an unreal glow, evocative of legend and tasking those who remain in the world with its preservation. During Caesar and his cohorts’ tread along a beach, the butter-yellow light of sun makes the wet sand shimmer like glaze. But more often, the film plays out in darkness, and the spare light that penetrates that darkness makes it seem as if faces, human and ape alike, are floating in deep space. Caesar, often seen half in shadow, seems on the verge of being consumed by his internal struggles.
The first two films in this series hinge on a fascinating paradox, as they simultaneously represent the history of their ape characters as well as their mythic origin. Here, Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback engage in their own war to drive this idea home by bombarding audiences with a buckshot of symbols lifted from a hodgepodge of iconographies. Biblical Egypt and Palestine, Revelations, the American West, Auschwitz, and black freedom struggles are all evoked. This tactic has an obvious motive: pulse together enough touchstones of conflict and you can spit out an ur-struggle that captures the whiff of any vaguely populist sentiment. It’s a means of eliciting a sometimes poignant, meditative reflection on the state of humanity, but it produces hollow and recklessly offensive inanities like portraying ape resistance with, I kid you not, black-power fists.
War for the Planet of the Apes makes a better case for itself as a struggle for the ages through its high-power performances than when its cycling through a jumble of symbols. The Colonel never seems so mythically delusional as when we watch his caricatured way of eating, his villainous bite suggesting someone who’s already contemplating his representation for centuries to come. Harrelson’s matter-of-fact delivery of the Colonel’s end-of-history worldview is chilling enough to scare the viewer into joining his cause. Caesar, more grounded, but cognizant of his primate quasi-divinity, is pure force and motility. With the sensitive aid of CGI’s exaggerated motion and sumptuous textures, Serkis’s simian performance makes Caesar seem legendary just from the swing of his arms. With swaggering bravado, Caesar doesn’t just get angry, fight, or feel pain—he rages, battles, and suffers.