It may sound like a no-brainer that a film can have a solid script with narrative depth and authentic emotion while also working as a spectacular big-budget adventure, but tell that to Michael Bay. His five-movies-and-counting "Transformers" franchise gives effects-laden blockbusters a bad name, and his most recent, "Transformers: The Last Knight
," was so abysmally written and insufferably empty-headed it became offensive. Now consider "War for the Planet of the Apes," a riveting action-drama of complex ideas and narrative elegance. It is the third in a series which ambitiously began with 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes
" and 2014's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
," and also happens to be the best one yet. With a clear, organic vision guiding the way, returning writer-director Matt Reeves (2010's "Let Me In
") and co-writer Mark Bomback (2015's "Insurgent
") have made something thoughtful yet artistically dazzling. Never does it have that unmistakable made-by-committee smell of so many expensive studio features of this ilk.
It has been fifteen years since the Simian Flu wiped out much of the world's population, leaving the remaining humans at odds against a primate uprising. A military unit spearheaded by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) has been sent to find the secret command center where leader of the apes Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe reside. Caesar desperately wants to find a way to bridge the contentious divide between apes and humans, but all of this changes when two cold-blooded murders hit close to home. Level-headed ally Maurice (Karin Konoval) warns that his visceral desire for vengeance is threatening to turn him into Koba (Toby Kebbell), a former friend-turned-foe whose hatred of humans led to his death. Caesar sees it in himself, too, but the damage has been done. He cannot back down until the person who took away his loved ones pays.
"War for the Planet of the Apes" has the vitality, the grit, and the unsuspecting humanity of classic war cinema, the build-up of its two predecessors leading to a wholly satisfying, provocatively composed crescendo. Part road odyssey, part captivity drama, part rousing rescue yarn, the film transfigures into something new and fresh roughly every half-hour. Gutsy metaphors for some of history's most shameful stains (e.g., slavery, segregation, Nazism) aren't exactly subtle, but this forthright boldness works within a life-or-death tale that has no time for reservation and pleasantries. Enhancing director Matt Reeves' astute whole is Michael Giacchino's (2017's "The Book of Henry
") dynamic, propulsive music score, a catalog of one powerhouse track after the next, and Michael Seresin's (2010's "All Good Things
") fluid cinematography of a world lapsed into desolation and chaos. As for the magnificent visual effects on display, there is nary a wrong step to be found as the bar is once more raised in terms of its photorealism of hair, skin and body movement. Indeed, the days of computer-generated characters with "dead eyes" are long gone.
Over three pictures, Caesar has become an arresting, sympathetic protagonist, Andy Serkis' (2015's "Avengers: Age of Ultron
") stunning performance growing in dimensions while walking hand-in-hand with the motion-capture wizardry that completes the illusion of a highly evolved, living and breathing ape. Simply put, Serkis should instantly be a leading actor awards frontrunner, his work as intense, demanding and powerful as just about any an actor has given in 2017. He carries the film, a key tragedy Caesar experiences early on the catalyst for the fateful journey which follows.
Serkis' remarkable turn is complemented by those around him. Karin Konoval (2014's "Step Up: All In
") continues to be a wonderful, faithful Maurice, her character's nurturing ways suddenly given new importance when the ape rescues an orphaned child, Nova (Amiah Miller), and convinces Caesar to allow him to bring her along. Initially, it seems as if bringing a child into the story is a contrivance. By the end, it feels like anything but, her participation becoming all the more crucial as grim new revelations come to light. New to the series, Steve Zahn (2013's "Dallas Buyers Club
") is an instant scene-stealer as Bad Ape, a lonely zoo escapee looking for a place to belong. In a film requiring a certain tonal darkness and morose gravitas, Zahn provides much-needed, thankfully unforced levity. On the human side, there are only two prominent figures: Woody Harrelson's (2016's "Now You See Me 2
") chilling Colonel, demanding subordination from his soldiers while looking out from on high, his ruthless view of apes originating from a harrowing past of his own, and Amiah Miller's (2016's "Lights Out
") mute Nova. Miller is a natural young actor with the gift of effortlessly expressing everything without having to say anything.
When "War for the Planet of the Apes" reaches its quietly bittersweet yet fully earned ending, one is of two minds: the story told over the last three movies has been an intimate one and reached its natural conclusion, but there is a larger apocalyptic tale that has been barely scratched. When all we've seen has taken place in and around California, there has been little chance to explore what has been happening on the other side of the countryor world, for that matter. It's a minor observation, but valid (after all, "Planet" is in the title). With that said, the challenging microcosm with which director Matt Reeves has explored racism, class division, national discord, fear and survival, and, yes, the hell of war, is not to be discounted. A blue-ribbon technical achievement with plenty of vividly contemplative layers underneath, "War for the Planet of the Apes" is an adult-minded summer tentpole providing the requisite eye candy without sacrificing its intellect or storytelling maturity.