Matt Reeves' Planet of the Apes trilogy has gradually moved away from the concept's dystopian foundation, as established by original novelist Pierre Boulle and original screenwriter Rod Serling, making the saga of Caesar the chimp revolutionary a crowd-pleasing fantasy series. His movies remain superficially dystopian, portraying the further decline of the human race, but by now they don't feel dystopian in any meaningful way because no one's rooting for the humans. From the beginning, the Apes myth has been the sort of dystopia in which the victims had it coming; Charlton Heston's final rant in the 1968 movie sets the tone. Keep at it and the victims are bound to lose viewers' sympathy, especially when the filmmakers don't treat them as victims, but villains. The best proof of Reeves' success is that people don't ask themselves whether, as human beings, they should be happy with the results of his films. A lot of people will credit this to Andy Serkis's by-now overrated (But still good! Don't kill me!) motion-capture performances as Caesar and the sympathy he earns for the apes, but it really comes down to the writing -- and maybe also to a more misanthropic spirit in our time. You might expect a divided audience, some identifying more strongly with the apes while identifying the humans with certain more obnoxious or oppressive members of the species, while some still regard even the purely fictional prospect of human extinction with horror. But I doubt whether anyone watching War is not on Caesar's side, no matter what that means for those who aren't.
We open with the war promised at the end of the last picture underway. Diminished as they are by the simian flu, humans in northern California still outnumber and outgun Caesar's band of artificially-evolved apes, but still can't overcome the ape defenses in the dense forest. Nevertheless, each skirmish brings unacceptable losses, and Caesar hopes to break out of the forest and head south, where there are, presumably, fewer humans. Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson), the leader of the local army, isn't going to let the apes go so easily. Doubly resentful now that he's discovered that simian flu is a gift that keeps on giving, McCullough (referred to by everyone else as simply "The Colonel") intends to exterminate the apes through slave labor. He's put captive apes to work building a wall -- don't freak out, anybody; the screenplay was written before anyone took Trump seriously, and in any event the wall is meant to keep out fellow humans, fellow soldiers even. A main force further north hasn't taken well with the Colonel's method of controlling the spread of secondary simian flu, which is to shoot anyone who contracts it, including his own son. Despite his extinction agenda, McCullough has simian collaborators: followers of the late Koba (Toby Kebbell takes a few encores to haunt Caesar's dreams) who paradoxically make common cause with humans out of fear and resentment of Caesar. In his greatest blunder as a leader, Caesar sends the majority of the apes south while he seeks personal revenge for casualties inflicted in one of the Colonel's raids on the forest. He's accompanied by his stalwarts: Luca the gorilla (Michael Adamthwaite), Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval) and Rocket the chimp (Terry Notary) -- and by a little human girl (Amiah Miller) that Caesar's crew inadvertently orphaned, and for whom the kindly Maurice in particular feels responsible. We learn eventually that her muteness is a result of the secondary virus, but more on that later. While this motley band, joined eventually by the first evolved ape they've ever seen who isn't part of their original group, heads toward a border station where they expect to find the Colonel, that clever man swept down upon the refugee apes with such swiftness and efficiency that they all arrive there and are put to work before Caesar reaches the place.
I prefer to keep spoilers at a minimum for non-superhero movies so I won't say much about the rest of the film, except to describe it as a cross between Apocalypse Now and The Ten Commandments, the latter proving the dominant strain even though Reeves openly invites comparison with the former with a bald, crazy colonel and some "Apepocalypse Now" graffiti. There's clever symbolic labeling throughout the film; the Colonel's soldiers call the apes "Kongs" but dub their gorilla collaborators "Donkeys"; one soldier's battle slogan, written on his helmet, is "Bedtime for Bonzo." There's more overt humor here than in the previous films, perhaps because Reeves recognizes by now how popular these films are. We even get a comedy-relief ape in the aforementioned but just-now identified "Bad Ape" (Steve Zahn), whose nebulous origin story opens the door to further exploration or the increasingly apish planet. He got smart like his fellow zoo apes but he honestly isn't very bright. His main trait is old-school comic cowardice of the sort that gets set aside when your buddies apply enough pressure. The little girl, who is given the easter-egg name "Nova" after one of Bad Ape's car-ornament trinkets, often proves more useful than this simian who never learned sign-language and thus can't communicate understand the other apes when Caesar's not around to translate. About the girl and her sickness: anyone who knows the history of Planet of the Apes can see that her plight evokes the mute humans Charlton Heston encounters. But what has happened to her exactly? For Col. McCullough the secondary flu is a fate worse than death because it robs people of speech. He also claims that victims are reduced to a "primitive" state, but we have only his hysterical word for that, compared to the evidence of Nova, who picks up the apes' sign language readily enough and displays numerous positive character traits that belie the Colonel's pejorative sense of "primitive." One could almost believe that the secondary flu has purified the girl, whose future is one of the more tantalizing threads that could be picked up in a post-Reeves sequel. For now, at least, it looks like Reeves and co-writer Mark Bombeck may have meant to make a point about our identification of sentience with speech or our reluctance to ascribe sentience to those without speech, but if so they fudge it a little by having Caesar talk more often than he probably needs to or should in story terms, for the obvious reason of reinforcing audience identification with the hero chimp.
As I said, the Ten Commandments gene ultimately overwhelms the film, inflicting a gratuitous disaster climax on top of the genuine climax of Caesar's escape from the Colonel's base in the middle of an air attack by the enemy army. It keeps up after that extra-climax with a sadly flat denouement at the edge of the promised land, with Maurice as Caesar's Aaron and Rocket as his Joshua, while Reeves can think of nothing better for Nova and Bad Ape to do than romp around in circles in something like a parody of play. But I won't hold the end of the picture against its actual story or Reeves' overall direction. War relies on emotional intensity rather than frantic action, often lingering on the wondrously expressive faces of Caeasr -- surely you can't credit Serkis alone for all of this -- and the other lead apes, and emphasizing Harrelson's profoundly menacing presence as the Colonel without requiring him to emote villainously. Reeves is at his best simply framing Harrelson watching the imprisoned Caesar from his balcony, or receiving the adulation of his troops while preoccupied with shaving his head. Harrelson does a tremendous job under Reeves' direction to compete with the lead apes, who probably are the best CGI creations on film to date, not counting Pixar movies. Reeves can shoot close-ups of their faces with Leonean intensity with full justification; you really do feel like you can see the inner workings of Caesar, Maurice or Rocket's mind when they're not talking or signing. War may not really stick the landing, but it should still go down as one of the best third films in a series. While there can and perhaps should be more films in this Apes series, Reeves' trilogy should stand for some time as one of the most impressive achievements in modern genre film.