Movie review: ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ wraps up franchise on a moving, thought-provoking note

Although it may not draw the same level of feverish buzz as its superhero peers, the Planet of the Apes reboot is actually one of the best — and most underrated — currently running franchises. The films have combined breathtaking motion-capture special effects and acting with surprisingly thought-provoking storylines that ask deeper questions than many summer blockbusters dare to. The series (presumably) comes to an end with the somber but powerful “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

The trilogy began in 2011 with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” where scientist Will Rodman inadvertently creates a hyper-intelligent ape named Caesar (Andy Serkis). The experiment backfires, and a decade later, in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” much of humanity has been wiped out by the simian flu. Caesar and his band of increasingly intelligent apes want to live peacefully, but a misunderstanding sparks a war between apes and humans. Now, in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the conflict threatens the survival of both species.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” has a lot less action than you might expect for a film with the word “war” in its title — but that’s actually okay with me. That leaves plenty of time for quieter moments between characters and the film’s exploration of its main theme, which is the danger of fear and hatred. The film primarily focuses on Caesar’s journey after he experiences a personal tragedy and goes on a quest for revenge, putting both himself and his friends at risk.

It’s really a shame that Andy Serkis has never been nominated for an Oscar for his motion-capture work, because it’s far more than just standing in front of a green screen. Serkis’ facial expressions and voice acting give Caesar his soul and make him the most powerful character in the franchise. He is noble and thoughtful, but not without flaws. By the time we reach “War for the Planet of the Apes,” you can see in his eyes how the hardships he’s been through have taken a toll on him.

What’s so interesting about this film is that it has, on the surface, quite a few film tropes — a hero going on a quest for revenge that leads to self-discovery, a hard-nosed military commander, and a lost little girl who ends up accompanying Caesar and his friends on their mission. However, even though we’ve seen similar features in films before, this movie takes these tropes and either presents them in a new way or uses them with a surprising twist. Although Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, leader of a human military group, could have easily become a caricature, about halfway through the film he reveals a devastating secret that takes his character to another level. The little girl who joins the apes on their journey is also an interesting character and ends up relating to the secret the Colonel is hiding.

The cinematography is bleak but gorgeous, the muted tones and snowy landscape fitting in with the film’s somber tone. The special effects enhance the film but never take over, keeping the focus on the characters and their story. The apes are expertly animated, appearing lifelike and never too CGI-manipulated.

Although the film’s protagonists may be apes, the movie actually has a lot of say about humanity and issues we are facing today. Both sides in the “War for the Planet of the Apes” hate each other mainly based on fear, and a lack of understanding prevents a resolution to the conflict. Violence occurs when that fear turns to hatred and spirals out of control. And the idea that humans could someday be the architects of their own destruction is a chilling one.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” ends on a sad but hopeful note, bringing an end to one era and beginning a new one. I’m not certain if this is actually going to be the last movie in the franchise, but I think this story is a good one to end on. If you haven’t seen any of the films in this trilogy, they’re definitely worth catching up on.

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