‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Review

Caesar plays Monkey Moses as the apes search for the Promised Land


Plot points of War for the Planet of the Apes, including some allusions to the ending, are discussed below. I also plan on using "monkey" and "ape" interchangeably despite the feeling of revulsion this will stir in pedants; feel free to report me to PETA or the Guild of Zoologists or whoever. 

Intermittently funny and dour, alternately dull and exciting, and grasping for depth when it isn't content to settle for sentiment, War for the Planet of the Apes is the misanthropic blockbuster all of you who have been a bit down on humanity for the last couple of years have been longing for.

The final chapter of the trilogy begins with the briefest of recaps: in title cards we are reminded that a disease cooked up by humanity gave Rise to a generation of genius apes; in the Dawn of their ascendance, they went to war under the leadership of the wicked ape Koba, who betrayed the noble, human-friendly Caesar (Andy Serkis); and now, War looms as a rogue remnant of the United States army bears down on the ape stronghold in the Pacific Northwest.

The battle is pitched, a Special Forces unit armed with rockets and machine guns (and, oddly, one crossbow) unleashing hell on the apes with the help of a pack of turncoats—cruelly nicknamed "Donkeys" by the soldiers—loyal to the deceased Koba. Needless to say, they don't succeed in the effort to take down Caesar who, ever magnanimous and still hoping to live in peace with the humans he once lived among and loved, sends the survivors back to their camp. This kindness is repaid in blood, as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) returns with a small team and kills Caesar's family.

As far as character choices go, playing Caesar with an unrelenting grimness makes some sense for Serkis; the wise ape does, after all, have the weight of his people on his shoulders and his dead family on his conscience. It was Caesar's decision to return the soldiers to this Kurtz-esque colonel; his call not to retreat after the attack had been made. But it's all a bit rote, a trifle monotonous. Serkis and his team of digital wizards show Caesar with a grimace throughout. For all the talk about the genius of the CGI and the incredible motion capture work done by Serkis—the increasing buzz about Academy Awards nominations, a sort of lifetime achievement award for the guy behind Gollum and now Caesar—he really doesn't show much in the way of range in this film.

More entertaining are the moments when the camera spends less time on Caesar and we instead hang out with the band of brother-monkeys. Caesar and company have split off from the main herd of apes to take down The Colonel; along the way, Caesar, Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Red Donkey (Ty Olsson) pick up a mute human girl (Amiah Miller) and find Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), an ape who evolved in a separate location from Caesar and his allies after the virus spread, suggesting that there are more pockets of brilliant monkeys dotting the globe.

If any individual actor deserves an Oscar for their performance in this film—and, I'm sorry, they don't, given the collaborative nature of the way motion capture artists work with the actual men making the movements—Zahn should get a closer look than Serkis. His Bad Ape betrays real heart and soul, a beast burdened with a brain and trying to make the most of it.

Bad Ape's efforts to fit in with the rest of the animals along with the splinter group's efforts to free the rest of their friends—who were discovered as they made their way to a lakeside paradise and were imprisoned by the Colonel, forced to perform slave labor for the psychotic officer—are more lighthearted and more entertaining than pretty much everything to do with Caesar, who is rather ludicrously positioned as ape-Jesus and ape-Moses all in one.

It's not just these allusive stretches that render War for the Planet of the Apes a bit overwrought at times. I don't know if you guys know this but War Is Bad And We Would Be Better Off Living In Peace. Shocking stuff. Even though, naturally, The Colonel is right and the apes would undoubtedly one day wipe humanity off the planet, just as humanity wiped the Neanderthals off before. This rock's not big enough for two sentient species with the urge to proliferate; might as well try to knock off the minging monkeys while we still have the numbers and the technology.

I get the sense, though, that we're not really supposed to be rooting for the humans in War for the Planet of the Apes. Odd, that. We're probably the only race with a guilt complex that makes some of us believe species suicide is preferable to proliferation and dominance. Our genius, our curse. Or something like that.

Sonny Bunch   Email Sonny | Full Bio | RSS
Sonny Bunch is executive editor of, and film critic for, the Washington Free Beacon. A contributor to the Washington Post, Sonny's work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, Commentary, National Review, Decider, and elsewhere. His Twitter handle is @SonnyBunch.

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