War for the Planet of the Apes is a coronation for the best modern blockbuster franchise

For Matt Reeves, it’s all about the eyes.

It’s a rare accomplishment to have a film this large and this wrapped up in decades of backstory and expectations feel like so intimate and so desperately emotional, clinging on to hope and despair and fear and triumph.

It’s because of the eyes. The surprisingly emotive digital eyes that peer deep into the souls of creatures that exist as a pair of pajamas and thousands of hours of computer rendering. It’s the hardest thing to do creating digital characters, to get their eyes right. Yet in every moment, Reeves finds something real inside them. The slow examination of ape and man that reveals an internal life that cuts deep into the heart.

This has always been the strength of the Planet of the Apes revival, starting with Wyatt’s Rise and moving into Reeves’ Dawn, to find surprising depth and excitement inside films that didn’t demand either. In War, all of this comes to the final fruition in its best incarnation yet, capping a trilogy in one of the most unequivocally emotional and bleak and dazzling films of the summer.

Picking up roughly two years after Dawn, the apes and humans are locked in a fierce war for the planet, no one gaining ground with pyrrhic victory after pyrrhic victory. Caesar (Andy Serkis) has not been seen in some time, but his presence still terrifies the human forces, led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

An attack by the Colonel devastates the Ape camp as they prepare to leave for a new home, which sets Caesar down a dark path of revenge and directly towards what will almost certainly be the final showdown for whether this becomes the Planet of the Apes.

That’s right, our protagonists’ end goal is to wipe out humanity, or at least not stop the decline of the remnant. It’s deeply fascinating that we have a major studio picture that is so unabashedly misanthropic, or at the very least getting the audience to root against itself.

We do all hate humanity a little bit right now, so I can’t blame an audience for giving into those impulses. But it also comes from the work Matt Reeves does with his main apes and the work that the motion capture artists do with their performance as well.

While they all blow me away, from Steve Zahn’s impossibly endearing Bad Ape (I want to give away very little, but he’s an absolute delight) to Michael Adamthwaite’s gentle and powerful Luca to Karin Konoval’s wise Maurice, it’s Serkis’ Caesar that is the beating heart of this franchise and the most core to its success. While Gollum may be his most iconic role, Caesar will undoubtedly go down as his best.

Serkis’ Caesar is a deeply flawed leader, one of great intelligence and strength and one of short temper and loyalty-driven misjudgements. You understand the loyalty he inspires and the pain that drives every wrong step. You see it in his eyes, the rage that overcomes him and in the pain he just barely keeps under the surface.

It’s Serkis that puts all that there, a delicate art in combination with the VFX artists that map in on top of a truly brilliant performance. It’s Reeves who captures it perfectly, every look and every longing for something better and for a people who could possibly have the world they imagined.

I focus so deeply on the character because they are what drive War for the Planet of the Apes. As large-scale as this movie is, this is a movie that is all about the relationships between its character, the conflicts that they are driven into.

Harrelson’s Colonel is the perfect catalyst in that sort of scenario, a man so passionate and so utterly convinced that he’s doing the only logical thing. The flip of Caesar, where his rage feels like its consumed him so deeply he can no longer even recognize its existence. Harrelson chews scenery, but it is with purpose.

Colonel is also the perfect villain for what this movie ultimately is. He’s not a general, he’s a wild card, a killer reveling in his sadism. And this ultimately isn’t a war movie, despite its name.

Okay, well, it is. But it’s less The Longest Day and more The Great Escape, a picture about what war does to people when they aren’t directly on the battlefield and how people navigate tragedy and captivity.

It’s also less a war and more a Western, traveling throughout the landscapes of the Wild West that is now the whole of America on horseback, the young savage girl joining them, the conflict between man and nature writ large.

But all of this is best understood in the story this trilogy has been telling. Our de-evolution and the evolution of a species that can and does replace us. Seeing Caesar come into his own as a leader and lead his people to the promised land. There’s a weight of history, a character who has struggled for years. A journey of rising and falling that is given its final meaning.

War for the Planet of the Apes is simply the most of its trilogy. It’s the most emotional, the most amusing, the most thrilling, the most thoughtful, and so much more. It’s stunning to see a film this big that roots against humanity, that is willing to go so quiet for so long, that is willing to be so reliant on its effects beyond just set pieces.

It’s a towering testament to how you can fuse art and entertainment. It’s an affirmation of the talent of everyone involved. It’s an elegy to a blockbuster franchise that stands head-and-shoulders above almost all its competition.

Grade: A