‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ isn’t the film you might be expecting. You should still see it.
“War for the Planet of the Apes,” the final installment in this prequel trilogy, opens with what one might expect for a film with “war” in its title: human soldiers, accompanied by treasonous apes they deem as “donkeys,” trek through a murky jungle until they come upon an ape camp to carry out an assault. It looks like the humans may have the upper hand, until a gang of horse-riding apes launch a storm of arrows upon them like something out of “300.” It’s an opening scene that sets the stage for…a film that really isn’t anything like that.
Yes, “War” lives up to its title, but not in ways one may expect. Matt Reeves’s follow-up to 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” does cover all of its ground with ape vs. human, ape vs. ape and even human vs. human confrontations, but at the heart of the film are inner conflicts. The ape’s leader, Caesar, wrestles between his loyalty to his brethren and his insatiable appetite for vengeance against the human colonel, played by Woody Harrelson. The real war is is within.
Enter a film that is more dramatic character study than summer action blockbuster. One could say the same about “Dawn,” which saw Caesar struggle to maintain order among his kind as the ape Koba led a revolt against humans, which leads to the conflicts in this third film. But “War” is every bit as nuanced as “Dawn” and then some; it might be the bleakest summer release in years. It’s also one of the best, because it never submits to the expectations that come along with a summer release. It’s not dumb; it’s actually quite smart. And it’s not even that “action-packed.”
A large chunk of the middle of the film follows Caesar and a few of his fellow apes as they trek towards the humans and their Colonel. They happen upon a female human child, who ends up tagging along. It’s not the direction that some may have expected, or wanted; clocking in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, less patient audiences may find much of the film to be a tedious watch, but it’s a compelling, gorgeous journey worth taking.
Many of Caesar’s decisions throughout the film could be called into question, but it also speaks to the various nature of the characters. As the humans devolve into primitive creatures, the apes are evolving, and getting smarter every day. But part of evolving past humans means inheriting their reckless behavior and unpredictable emotional outbursts. The Colonel even exclaims “So emotional!” about Caesar in one scene.
“War” takes its time telling its story, so much so that by the end of the film, audiences may be wondering what happens next. The “war” is very isolated, and we have yet to see what the planet is like outside of just Caesar’s band of apes. Despite this, it’s a satisfying end emotionally. We see hints of the future while keeping us in the present. We anticipate what might happen next while not exactly wanting, or needing, to see it.