War for the Planet of the Apes is a work of blockbuster art that carries its huge budget lightly. There's lots of action, but there are significant stretches of silence, too, some tense, some contemplative. And while machine guns do chatter and tracer rounds do scream through the night, the movie's most arresting elements are more subtle—the picture is deeply enriched by James Chinlund's production design, with its gorgeous woodland waterfalls and jailbreak light shows, and by Michael Giacchino's elegant score. But the movie's central attraction is yet another career-high performance by the great Andy Serkis, donning the digital mantle of the rebel ape Caesar for the third time, and once again eclipsing his previous achievements in the role.
The movie quickly sketches in the story so far—you'll recall the simian virus that long ago wiped out most of the human race, and the rise of intelligent apes and so forth. Then it takes us to a forest where a patrol of human soldiers, their helmets stenciled with phrases like "Bedtime for Bonzo," is stalking a company of armed apes whom we see on horseback looking down on their trackers from a hill. Returning director Matt Reeves here delivers the first of several powerful battle scenes, and then introduces Caesar, whom we see telling a captive soldier that the ongoing inter-species war can end as soon as humans agree to leave the apes in peace. He dispatches the soldier to deliver this message to his leader, a shadowy figure known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson in a riveting, drum-tight performance).
We soon meet The Colonel in a spectacular scene in which he rappels down through plunging sheets of water to launch an invasion of the apes' settlement, which is hidden behind a waterfall. In the aftermath of this attack, Caesar discovers that his wife and one of his sons have been killed, and he is instantly consumed by a hunger for vengeance – and by concern: he knows that hatred destroyed his onetime comrade Koba (Toby Kebbell in dream visits), and that it could eat away at his own dream of peace.
At this point, what has started out as a traditional war movie turns into a specific war movie, or a tribute to that movie, or…something. As in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Apocalypse Now, Harrelson's Colonel—bald-headed and brooding like Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz in the Coppola film—is a crazed renegade who lives in a remote, gruesome compound and has been targeted for termination by his own high command. I'm not sure what the point of this clever echoing is supposed to be, beyond borrowing some of the psychedelic nihilism of the Coppola film to buttress this movie's demonstration that war is, as so often advertised, hell. That message comes across, all right—but when we suddenly hear Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe" rise up on the soundtrack for no pertinent reason, or see a graffito in a cave that reads "Ape-ocalypse Now," I think the writers (director Reeves and Mark Bomback) are, in the words of psychedelic Sky Saxon, pushing too hard.
Anyway, accompanied by three lieutenants (among them the endearing orangutan Maurice, again played by Karin Konoval), Caesar sets out to follow The Colonel back to his compound. Along the way, they come upon a bleak human settlement where they encounter a young girl (Amiah Miller) who has lost the ability to speak, and a nervous, Dobby-like simian who calls himself "Bad Ape" (Steve Zahn, wondrously funny). Arriving at The Colonel's compound, they find it to be essentially a concentration camp for captured apes who are being forced to…well, let's not go there. Caesar also receives some melancholy news from The Colonel himself, but let us leave that likewise unstated.
This is a movie of golden-age Hollywood craft, lustrously shot and gleamingly assembled. The creature effects—the many apes of many shapes and sizes who fill the screen – no longer seem like "effects": they're simply creatures, now familiar through long acquaintance. And none of them connects with us more deeply than Serkis's Caesar. He's the triumphant creation of an actor whose genius for the projection of personality via physical nuance radiates through the digital makeup that's applied after his performance. Maybe this will be the year that his brilliance will be rewarded by the industry of which he's such a dazzling ornament.