The third and possibly final chapter in the Planet of the Apes reboot does indeed begin as a war movie, with a tense opening scene that could easily fit into a Vietnam-set actioner, and it concludes with a war, though not the one you first expect. But ironically, there was more man vs. ape battle in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes than you'll see here. War for the Planet of the Apes draws from other war movie subgenres, from The Great Escape to Schindler's List. It also quite frequently feels like a Western.
We are told in the opening moments that it's been just 15 years since the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the first film in the series, which concluded with Caesar the chimp (voiced and mocap-performed by Andy Serkis) gaining human levels of intelligence as a massive virus is poised to wipe out most of mankind. Apes have come a long way in that decade and a half, though most still communicate with sign language as they cope with the ruthless human soldiers who want to reclaim the planet.
After a family tragedy, Caesar and a small cadre of supporters trek north to assassinate a genocidal maniac (Woody Harrelson, doing his best riff on Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz), and their peripatetic journey takes up much of the film. In truth, many of the Caesar scenes are a bit corny, even if Caesar himself is a great character. If these were everyday human actors playing out these cliches, you'd be rolling your eyes. But the spectacle of computer-generated apes seamlessly grafted onto motion-captured human performances is irresistible. Like the other films in this series, War for the Planet of the Apes is all about the awesome visuals, and it's astonishing to behold.
Ubiquitous composer Michael Giacchino, who has truly become the new John Williams, delivers one of his most rousing and old-fashioned scores (though it owes so much to Jerry Goldsmith's 1968 Planet of the Apes score that maybe I should be calling Giacchino the new Goldsmith). Michael Seresin's wintry cinematography is gorgeous, Reeves directs with typical aplomb, and the script, by Reeves and Mark Bomback, contains several nice details that connect the film to the Apes movies of the '60s and '70s.
As of this writing, it's too early to tell whether this film will do well enough to warrant any more sequels, or if there's any more story to tell before we are once again recycling the plot from the 1968 original. Still, I'd love to see Reeves and company's take on what an ape-dominated, 22nd-century earth might be like, since they are clearly passionate about doing this franchise right. Until then, for fans of the series, this film provides a satisfying if not exactly mind-blowing conclusion.