War for the Planet of the Apes
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller
Rated PG-13
2 hours, 20 mins.

In War for the Planet of the Apes, writer and director Matt Reeves has done an about-face in his story line. Instead of simply leading an ape army as he previously did in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar pursues a more solitary mission of revenge upon the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) for the death of his wife, Cornelia (Judy Greer), and his older son, Blue Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones).

It’s a 180 from Reeves’ previous film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The high-action, high-energy ape-and-human conflict is toned down. Reeves chooses instead to explore the human toll of war. As it turns out, Caesar has a dark side; and in this film, Reeves chooses to explore it.

Caesar’s ape clan remains hidden in the Muir Woods. At war with a fanatical human military faction called Alpha-Omega, Caesar tries to make peace by showing mercy to one of their captured soldiers. He sends him home with a message: Leave us alone.

It doesn’t work. The Colonel invades Caesar’s home, kills his family, then disappears. For Caesar, it’s a turning point — from leader and diplomat to assassin. Caesar sends the remaining members of his clan east to the desert and pursues the Colonel.

Initially, he plans to go alone, but at the insistence of the Bornean orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary) and the western lowland gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), they travel together to carry out Caesar’s mission.

What they discover is perplexing. A young mute girl (Amiah Miller) is rescued in a mountain cabin. Why is she here? And why are soldiers being shot for no apparent reason?

After pursuing and interrogating an English-speaking chimpanzee called Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), they learn of a zoo converted by the Colonel into military barracks. With some convincing and cajoling, Bad Ape reluctantly agrees to take them there.

As it turns out, the Colonel’s motives and plans are more complicated than the team had imagined. Indeed, war and sickness have engulfed the planet, and both human and ape survival are at stake.

In War, it seems that Reeves has made a deliberate decision to pull back on the action and spend more time probing Caesar’s moral compass. Rather than portray the ape as his clan’s patient, wise leader, Reeves paints a Caesar who is haunted by what he did to Koba (Toby Kebbell) in Dawn and what has subsequently happened to his family and clan. Is this retribution for his decision to defy the creed that ape not kill ape? As Caesar is locked in a zoo cage, he questions what he has done to bring such suffering upon apes. For Reeves, revenge seems to be a universal motive that always has unintended consequences.

For some, this more thoughtful and quiet approach to Caesar’s decisions may be disappointing. The rebooted Planet of the Apes has always included plenty of action. But Reeves’ switch in approach makes War a more accurate picture of what it means for Caesar to have been bred as a link between ape and human, to have inherited human moral complexity.

As for the actors, Andy Serkis as Caesar deserves at least an Oscar nod for giving Caesar life. Other equally impressive performances include Karin Konoval as Maurice and Steve Zahn as Bad Ape. Woody Harrelson also deserves a nod for his complex take on the Colonel. Nobody does killer with a soul the way Woody does.

As a finale, War of the Planet of the Apes is a fitting end to a great sci-fi series. It tugs at the heart without being overly maudlin. It has the feel of an ape version of War and Peace, only with sign language. As Caesar wisely noted: Ape together strong. In this sci-fi series, he was right on the mark.