Remember back in 2009 when a reboot was announced for the Planet of the Apes series that would chronicle the rise of the apes, and everybody rightfully laughed? Do you remember when it actually turned out to be quite good? Then the sequel was even better? The new Planet of the Apes franchise is practically the modern definition of a film series that is much better than it realistically should have been. The filmmakers took an inherently silly idea, but made it work by giving us a fresh and smart take on the story, all with dramatic and thematic depth to go along. Can gold be struck a third time, though?

After the events of the last film, chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow apes live deep in the forest where they have been at war with the invading human military. As tensions rise between the two parties, Caesar’s home is invaded by an army led by the power hungry Colonel (Woody Harrelson), losing his wife and son in the ensuing battle. Imbued with rage and vengeance, Caesar leads his colony on an exodus to find a peaceful home, but his bloodlust leads to his faction clashing with the Colonel’s. Unfortunately, Caesar and his kind eventually end up in jeopardy and he must work to save them all, as the War for the Planet of the Apes rages on.

First things first, just like before, the visual effects are absolutely mind blowing. Just when you think effects company WETA can’t top themselves, they do it again, displaying an immense level of craft in every single frame. Every ape looked completely real and seamlessly blended into the environment along with their human counterparts. A lot of the film is ape driven, hence our principal characters are technically animated, but they never felt fake. I occasionally thought to myself, “Wow, these effects are just incredible.” I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the way the sunlight illuminated certain details on their face, while others stayed shadowed, or how the snow melted into their fur, causing it to stick together. You honestly feel like you’re watching these animals speak and interact. This series has no doubt been a crowning achievement of visual effects. It shows what can be achieved by computer generated effects and that true craft, passion, and talent reside in that sphere of effects, too.

That doesn’t mean the story gets lost in all of the technical wonder. Oh, no, sir. Again, just like before, the story is captivating as Caesar ascends to the next level of his journey: becoming a legend. Over time he has become a leader for all of apekind, who all look towards him for guidance and salvation. However, he makes mistakes and gets caught up in his primal urges, eventually putting his brethren in danger. They never stop believing in him though, and he proves that no matter what, he’ll never give up on them. You can really feel the impact that his character has had on everyone else and the entire story as a whole. Andy Serkis obviously knocks it out of the park again, filling Caesar with so much depth and emotion, again elevating the computer effects to an actual character. He’s the king of motion capture and I think it’s safe to say that he’s a huge reason why these films feel so rich and alive.

There’s a lot of allegories to Biblical stories, particularly to Moses when Caesar leads the apes on an exodus to a promised land, and much more. The thing is, all of this symbolism of him being a savior to all completely worked. If there’s one thing this series has been, it’s consistent. The filmmakers successfully played this series completely straight from the start, to where audiences don’t laugh at primates on horseback shooting machine guns and it’s all completely engrossing. They have a story they want to tell with Caesar and know exactly what directions to take his character in thematically and symbolically. The first film dealt with the ethics of genetic engineering and dominance of animals, the second delved in co-existence and what truly separates other species, and this one of the nature of the war and chaos that eventually ensues from all prior conflicts.

It sounds bizarre, but this is absolutely a war film. It’s not just because of the gorgeous sweeping shots of battling species, but because of the nature of the conflict between the characters and the events of the story. Director Matt Reeves vividly captures the feeling of despair and horror that the characters endure, with striking imagery of corpse littered battlefields. The film is incredibly bleak, especially in the first half, featuring stuff like apes being forced to perform slave labor in camps while they starve to death, and other fun shenanigans. There’s some levity with a newly introduced chimp played by Steve Zahn, whose naïve optimism is a nice contrast to Caesar, but overall, it’s a pretty heavy film. Even the tertiary characters have their own arcs and moments of triumph, to where their hardships and deaths in the film have weight.  Every aspect is treated with stunning grace and maturity, whether it’s a gorilla manning a machine gun, or the emotional final confrontation between our hero and villain.

You feel awful for the apes and their situation, but above all, our human characters also feel complex and you can understand where they’re coming from, too. This is the most emotionally invested I’ve been in a blockbuster film in a very long time. While the apes are the real heart and soul of these films, Woody Harrelson gives a fantastic performance as the rogue military Colonel who wants to destroy all apes and have humanity claim its rightful throne on Earth. He feels like a real person with a completely understandable motivation, although his haunting past has now clouded his judgment beyond reason. The effects of the rise of the apes and the subsequent war have had a huge effect on both species, including little human girl Nova (Amiah Miller), who the apes find on their journey and take under their wing. While this is initially to Caesar’s chagrin, it’s this little girl that not only represents his lost family, but the innocence that still exists in humans. Both the Colonel and Nova both represent extreme ends of the human spectrum, with Caesar falling right in between.

If there’s one thing film trilogies are known for, it’s usually that the third movie largely pales in comparison to the rest. Back to the Future Part IIIThe Dark Knight Rises, Spider-Man 3Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, and many more have failed to live up to their iconic predecessors. That’s not to say that they’re all bad films, but when you’re on your third go around, the themes and style tend to get a bit tired. I am extremely satisfied to say that War for the Planet of the Apes completely lives up to the other fantastic films in the series and makes this one of the best film trilogies of all time. It provides an incredibly emotional and satisfying conclusion to the character of Caesar and his story, all while continuing to push special effects and blockbuster filmmaking forward. I’m not sure where they could go from here, as the story they wanted to tell has finally come to an incredible close, although I’m sure 20th Century Fox will just reboot it again in five years anyway.


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