Review: ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ rivets, stuns

The third film in the rebooted ‘Apes’ series takes blockbuster filmmaking to a new level

Adam Graham, The Detroit News
Woody Harrelson, center, in a scene from “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

‘War for the Planet of the Apes” is not only summer’s best blockbuster, it’s the best summer blockbuster in years, a smart, thoughtful, confrontational and challenging allegory for a world run amok.

That immediately separates it from the glut of blockbusters that clog our cineplex screens every summer. “Apes” envisions a world where our summer popcorn movies aren’t mindless vehicles for product placement and empty explosions; it sees blockbuster entertainment as a way to get audiences into their seats and hit them with something to chew on as they walk out of the theater. “Apes” exists in a better world, one where our brains aren’t required to be shut off between the months of May and September.

This stunning piece of entertainment comes from Matt Reeves, who also shepherded the “Apes” franchise’s second installment, 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” (He also made “Cloverfield.”) The “Apes” films have been a cut above their competition since the series was relaunched with 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” but “War” is on another level altogether. This artful dazzler could find itself in the running at next year’s Academy Awards, and not just in the technical categories.

“War” is mostly apes; human characters are minimized, and there are long stretches where there are not only no humans on screen, but no dialogue. Reeves relies on a fluent visual poetry to tell the story (many of the apes speak using sign language), and he gets a helping hand from composer Michael Giacchino, whose radical score is built on plinks and patters, not traditional orchestral swells. The jarring oddness of his score catches you off-guard and heightens the tension on-screen.

The story picks up with Caesar (motion captured by green screen whisperer Andy Serkis), leading his colony of apes several years after the death of Koba, the warring bonobo who met his demise (at the hands of Caesar) in the last film. The apes are now living on their own and attempting to do so peacefully, until a team of human soldiers — led by Woody Harrelson’s bald-headed madman, known only as the Colonel — pushes them out of their home and forces them to seek refuge elsewhere.

“War” follows their long journey through the woods until it shifts in its second half to a riveting prison camp thriller, with heavy overtones of previous war films, from “Apocalypse Now” to “The Great Escape.” (Harrelson’s character seems particularly inspired by Marlon Brando’s “Apocalypse” character Colonel Kurtz, and he even shaves his head with an industrial size knife in the open air to achieve the same smooth-headed effect.) This is where “War” really takes hold, and it tick-tocks with precision as it builds to its searing, explosive conclusion.

Reeves, who also wrote the script with Mark Bomback, bites off a lot here but he pulls it off; this is a bold, daring film, much heavier and darker than typical summer fare (or even the other chapters in this series). It takes risks, and the fact that Reeves is allowed to follow his vision at his own pace should be applauded (and it also heightens expectations for his next outing, helming “The Batman”). Reeves is thinking bigger than summer, and “War” is the unexpected boost franchise season needed. It’s the cure for the summertime blues.

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‘War for the Planet of the Apes’


Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images

Running time: 142 minutes