I am a little bummed that War for the Planet of the Apes was not a step up from Dawn, as Dawn was a step up from Rise. If memory serves, Dawn interweaved themes of loyalty, betrayal, and compassion into a genuinely crackling script, and I remember being rather impressed by its scope and weight. War feels less adept, in the sense that its thematic elements hold greater gravity than its predecessor, and yet they are bunched up in a script that deals too bluntly in common wartime tropes: vengeance and sacrifice, rebellion, and enslavement. There is inelegance here between expression and meaning that is jarring, and makes this a grim watch at times. Even the lighter touches, like Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape and the mute child Nova, can’t quite balance out the tone or give the story a fresher spin. It is at once the kind of grand conclusion you would expect from this franchise, but also the conclusion that should have been dreaded—one that envelopes itself in a lot of self-serious moralising without justifying its methods.
Saving the film, unsurprisingly, are the visual effects and Andy Serkis. The effects are as stunning as before, only now Matt Reeves gives us more close-ups of these computerised creations and allows us to admire all the fine details of the work. Every tuft of fur and wrinkle on their leathery faces looks believable and genuine, while their expressions veer more towards humanlike to show the progress of their intellectual evolution. Serkis’ eyes, however, are the most compelling, as is his rage and stoicism in the face of evil. The man has been a star in this role, etching out a beautiful creation with the same skill and tireless effort as he did Gollum in The Lord of the Rings—only he’s playing a hero this time around. Motion capture or not, the man has been the heart and soul of this franchise, and this film is a culmination of his work. It’s a fitting finale not just for this trilogy, but for his role within it, and I hope his performance gains more appreciation in the years to come.