Twentieth Century Fox's "War for the Planet of the Apes."

Image: 20th Century Fox

By Jarrod Jones. “I did not start this war.” So says Caesar, the star attraction of the re-imagined Planet of the Apes  trilogy, more eloquent these days and speaking with the weary guttural boom of Andy Serkis’ voice. The ape has a point — he never set out to declare the beginning of the end for humanity — we did that. The Simian Flu may have gripped the planet, but it was we who tore it apart. So was it nature that failed man, or did we ultimately fail nature?

That’s what makes these darn Planet of the Apes movies so compelling; it’s never been afraid to peek under the rocks of human nature to see what’s wriggling under there. Rise, the first one, dealt with our inhumane treatment of animals with a righteous fury, while Dawn posited that any peace between warring factions is only tenuous at best and could only ever end with bloodshed. As far as who kicked off the titular skirmish in War, the last chapter in this terrific trilogy, well… it’s complicated. It’s also a moot point. Because as far as the pecking order in these films is concerned — in the beginning moments of Matt Reeves’ latest installment, anyway — the apes are running this piece.

Caesar did, inevitably, become the figurehead of the ensuing war between a rabble of human survivors and his ever-growing ape society. And like any reluctant leader, Caesar has made mistakes — chief amongst them was fostering a growing hostility in his own ranks until it finally broke his ape-in-arms, Koba, in twain. Koba was a veritable powder keg that finally detonated towards the end of Dawn, and Caesar has been working towards a shaky truce ever since. He’s also been fighting a private war, grappling with his own ability to do violence, and the ease with which it often comes to him.

Twentieth Century Fox's "War for the Planet of the Apes."

Image: 20th Century Fox

Only this time Caesar is up against a wall of intolerance, hatred, and war-mongering, personified by Woody Harrelson’s Colonel. With his cleanly-shaven head and a tendency to rattle off his long list of atrocities with a casual folksy drawl, The Colonel reveals himself to be the anti-Caesar. He’s a fanatic that needs to be stopped, not just for the sake of Caesar’s apes, but for whatever remains of humanity in this world.

That would be enough of a conflict in a lesser summer movie, but Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, like the two installments that preceded it, has far more on its mind than a simple “us vs. them” parable. It’s a story of revenge, animosity, understanding, and sacrifice. It’s the science-fiction response to war films such as Apocalypse Now!, and perhaps less obviously, The Bridge on the River Kwai.

What draws these comparisons is the film’s cerebral approach to these oft-explored themes, a far cry from War‘s intense trailers, which leaned heavily into the kinetic aspects of the film. There’s action in here — whoo, boy, is there action — but don’t place your trust entirely in what 20th Century Fox is selling. If War is a war movie at all, it’s a gripping take on the troubling wartime ethos contained in classics such as Stalag 17. It questions the horrific lines we’ll often cross in the scramble for self-preservation, and the extent to which some will go to claim superiority over another race when such a thing doesn’t actually exist.

Twentieth Century Fox's "War for the Planet of the Apes."

Image: 20th Century Fox

What’s particularly striking about War is that it conveys all this without jettisoning its entertainment value. It’s often thrilling and it’s even funny in moments, thanks in large part to Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape (who makes himself scarce before he starts to Jar Jar up the proceedings) and Karin Konoval’s Maurice, who gives the film an aching honesty that would become lost otherwise. In many sequences where Serkis’ ferocious, tight-lipped resolve is the driving thrust of the narrative, Konoval arrives to soothe matters. The effect she has is contagious.

Director Matt Reeves, more confident with the technology at his beck and call than ever before, lovingly frames his apes (and a couple of his humans) in tight close-up and dares us to flinch. The motion-capture tech has evolved to an alarming degree here, and caught on the big screen, the creatures look every inch as convincing as their real-life counterparts. As a matter of fact, whenever we’re this intimately close it’s pretty clear that — performance-wise — the apes are often the stronger characters on the screen. (Let the Battle for Andy Serkis’ Oscar begin once more in earnest.)

Reeves’ close-ups recall the earlier work of Jonathan Demme, who often had his subjects stare directly into the camera during seemingly innocuous moments just to drill home the emotional impact. Reeves uses his close-ups for the bigger moments, but there are a few quiet ones peppered in that benefit from this approach, mostly concerning the mute human girl, Nova (newcomer Amiah Miller). With a few fleeting seconds of exchanged looks and some deft communicative work on behalf of the film’s mo-cap performers (especially a moment with gorilla Luca, played by Michael Adamthwaite), War sneaks into your head and puts those tear ducts to work. It’s riveting.

Directed by Matt Reeves.

Produced by Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver.

Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves.

Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Michael Adamthwaite, Terry Notary, Sara Canning, and Ty Olsson.

Rated PG-13 for mild existential despair.

8.5 out of 10