War for the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox, PG-13)

War of the Planet of the Apes is a blockbuster that effectively mixes its state-of-the-art effects with complex storytelling, thrilling set pieces, and dynamic characters.

Two years have passed since the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but those events have shaped what is the central conflict of the story. The wrath of vengeful ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) has helped to trigger a long and violent war between apes—led by the noble Caesar (Andy Serkis)—and humans. When a surprise attack on the apes’ habitat by soldiers, led by the brutal Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), results in a personal blow for Caesar, he sets out to exact revenge. He is joined by orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and his son Rocket (Terry Notary). Along the way, they encounter a fallen soldier’s silent daughter (Amiah Miller) and a chimpanzee only known as “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn). Their journey leads them to a base that uses apes for slave labor. Now, apes must work together to try to escape and to win the war.

This war is as much of an emotional feat as it is a physical one. The character that has to shoulder so much of that burden is Caesar, and Andy Serkis handles all of the ups and downs of this primate with grace and immense power. Despite being a different species, Caesar feels remarkably human. He feels love when he is around his family, but sometimes lets his anger influence his rash decisions. The script by the film’s director Matt Reeves and writer Mark Bomback challenges Caesar in ways he has not encountered before, and Serkis hits every emotional curveball thrown at him with a home run. This is a character for the ages, something not every film can achieve. Credit to Serkis for making the impossible possible.

Serkis’ Caesar finds his greatest adversary in Harrelson’s colonel. Harrelson approaches this character not with malicious sniveling evil, but with a cold-blooded and calculated approach. His character is a terrifying psychopath. Harrelson’s performance is chilling, and there are layers to his character that help crack the horrifying surface. A special shout-out goes to Miller, who has to convey everything through face and body language. She does so quite successfully. Serkis is not the only ape actor standing mighty and proud on the pedestal. Steve Kahn’s performance is sympathetic and masterfully upbeat and infectious. Konoval provides great emotion just through expression and body language, and this character’s interactions with Caesar provides some of the film’s most powerful scenes.

What help these performances become transcendent are the special effects surrounding each of our ape actors. Provided by WETA Digital, the VFX are on a whole other level. These apes look as real as can be, but the added emotion in the face is what truly makes them stand apart. So much of the inner conflict of Caesar and the other apes is communicated through their eyes, and all of that turmoil is captured to perfection. Also underlying the emotion is the incredible score from Michael Giacchino, who delivers, in my opinion, his best work. The music captures so many shades, from conflicting sentiments to unnerving atmosphere. Giving the atmosphere an extra edge is Michael Seresin’s beautiful cinematography, capturing all of the grey we expect from war.

Reeves has always been an interesting director, someone who can make even the most different of characters seem remarkably human. He made a vampire sympathetic in Let Me In, and now he has made apes grounded in his two outings with this series. His direction is effective in every stage, from his actors, to his storytelling, to the sleek exterior. But what has made these films work is that they never lose track of their emotional value. The apes and humans have always been challenged, and all have had something to grow or aspire to. They have been shown at their best and worst. This is top-tier blockbuster filmmaking with an eye for detail and a soul.

War for the Planet of the Apes is not only effective as a franchise installment, but also as a fearless summer movie. It is a slow burn, but the payoff could not be any more rewarding. This is everything big-budget filmmaking should aspire to. | Bill Loellke

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