"War For the Planet of the Apes" (2017) Review
It's kind of incredible that the Planet of the Apes franchise exists at all. I'm not just referring to the CGI-driven reboot cycle helmed by Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves, I'm talking about all of the sequels back in the 1970s too. It seems like people occasionally forget that Beneath the Planet of the Apes in 1970 literally ended with the entire Earth exploding, so it's amazing that they managed to make another three films after that. The thing that all of those sequels (and yes, even the much maligned Tim Burton remake in 2001) did manage to maintain was a certain cynicism and bleakness. Unfortunately, they were rarely accompanied by the intelligence that the cynicism and bleakness deserved.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes found a way to marry the intelligence, the cynicism, and the bleakness of the original in a different way. Instead of framing the "apes" evolution past human beings as a natural event, they were contextualized as a classic "scientific hubris of man" story. But what made the story so bleak was that the Simian flu created in Rise wasn't some kind of bio-weapon, it was meant to be part of a cure for Alzheimers, a good man with a familial motivation trying to do his best to help mankind and accidentally destroying it. And Dawn of the Planet of the Apes furthered that legacy by letting both the character flaws of the humans and the apes plunge them into... Well, war.
Which leads us to now and leads me to an extraordinarily difficult review to write. Make no mistake, I have plenty of nice things to say about War for the Planet of the Apes, it's just hard to say them without giving away what the movie is really up to. If you've been watching trailers and you're hoping for a massive battle, you'll get one. Just not the one that you thought you were going to get.
The new trilogy of these movies have constantly played with expectations, Rise resembling more of a prison movie, Dawn more of a tragic faction fight, and War... I'll just say that it has more in common with The Great Escape than it does Saving Private Ryan.
I know I'm speaking in broad strokes here, but this a great big budget sci-fi film that puts its faith in audiences investing into CGI apes and pulls it off with such ease that it feels absurd that other big franchise reboots don't turn out this well. This is literally a trilogy built out of making a chimpanzee named after a Roman emperor and it's work so damn well, and War feels like the right way to conclude that story. War is so good that it manages to correct one of the trilogy's biggest issues so far: The humans. Mankind has always been the weak narrative point for these movies but Woody Harrelson as the film's villain is a true force to reckon with. He's so good in the role that when he dumps exposition on the audience you don't even care that he's doing it.
I'll end this review by speaking in vague terms about how this film manages to create such a cripplingly mean ending while staying optimistic is its most stunning achievement as an individual film. But the way that it acts as the end of a three-part arc is downright miraculous. I look forward to owning all three of these movies one day and marathoning them because I have a feeling that the collective whole is going to pack a serious punch.