In the aftermath of Dawn For The Planet Of The Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) has led his people into the woods to hide from Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson), a merciless warlord who commands a battalion of soldiers that are hellbent on destroying apes once and for all. Before long, Caesar suffers an unimaginable loss that sees him set out on a quest for personal revenge...
Although Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was a commercial and critical success, there's no denying that the film didn't quite stick the landing and messed up the third act. Thankfully, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes managed to work around this and became one of the most effective sequels of the past twenty years or so. What made Dawn... such a well-regarded film was that it adhered to blockbuster tropes, but it actually had something to say and could do so in an intelligent and meaningful way. It was wickedly subversive, far more clever than you'd expect for a summer tentpole and had a mesmerising performance by Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell. In other words, the pressure is on War For The Planet Of The Apes to either live up to what came before or attempt to surpass it.
The film opens with a block of text explaining where the world is and goes into an expertly-staged battle sequence involving the remnants of humanity - led by Colonel McCullough (Harrelson) - and Caesar's forces. Think the opening of Gladiator, except with apes on horseback and automatic rifles, and you're on the right track. From there, Caesar's struggle to keep his savagery at bay is introduced, as well as a new life for the apes far beyond the frozen woods where they're currently hiding. Before long, the story shifts gears thanks to aMajor Incident™ and Caesar is determined to set off on a quest for personal revenge. While the film might follow a familiar path and some of the characters - particularly Harrelson's Colonel - are taken from other films, there's enough unique and interesting imagery and nuance to make up for it. One particularly disturbing scene involves the US national anthem blasting over loudspeakers as apes are whipped into slavery. The sight of the American flag - with an alpha/omega symbol scrawled across it - comes up repeatedly and speaks to just how desperate and fatalistic humanity has become.
Andy Serkis' performance as Caesar further raises the bar for what motion-capture acting can do. In fact, it's so good that it blurs the line between what is regular acting and mo-cap acting to the point where you can readily accept that there's a talking ape on the screen. Steve Zahn's character, Bad Ape, is a much-needed release valve of comedy in the film whilst theatre actress Karin Konoval adds a depth and subtlety as Maurice, the gentle orangutan who acts as Caesar's moral compass. As mentioned, Woody Harrelson is clearly channeling Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz; flitting between quiet menace and wild-eyed raving with ease. Although the film draws lines between it and Apocalypse Now, War... has more in common with Oliver Stone's Platoon; Caesar is struggling to remain merciful and just whilst the Colonel has given up on his own humanity entirely.
For a film that has 'war' in the title, it's clear that it's meant to speak to the war within Caesar rather than an all-out battle between man and ape. That said, the film does have some incredibly well-crafted battle sequences and Matt Reeves' eye for cinematography, framing and camera movement is unparalleled. As well as this, he's able to balance blockbuster spectacles with deeply dramatic, emotional moments with ease and poise that marks him out for even greater things in the future. There may be some extended sequences where it feels like there's no action, but it's all about building up layers that leads to one of the most satisfying climaxes for a blockbuster film you're ever likely to see. The script may be light on dialogue, but the moral complexities on the screen show that there's a lot going on, and not all of it is resolved in the way you'd expect. Indeed, the characters themselves aren't necessarily presented in binary terms. The film does an exceptional job of rationalising each character - who wouldn't go crazy if they saw humanity wiped out in the space of a few years? What would any of us do if repeatedly threatened with violence? Would you break or become hardened?
It's so rare to see a blockbuster that has something to say and does so with this level of intelligence and care. Easily the smartest blockbuster film you'll see this year.