There are many sins that can befall a franchise as it enters its third installment. The history of third-film stumbles is well documented (your The Godfather Part 3, your Spider-Man 3, your The Matrix: Revolutions, etc) and requires a steady hand to avoid becoming too much of a good thing. It can help to operate from a perspective of surprise, but that sense often fades away after two solid entries. Rise of the Planet of the Apes may have felt like a bit of a fluke when it was first released, especially after Tim Burton’s disastrous attempt to resurrect the franchise some ten years prior, but after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the proof was in the pudding that the franchise was a cut above the standard summer fare. The trouble, then, is the establishment of expectation. This is a franchise worthy of excitement. Which brings us to War for the Planet of the Apes, the third film of the Caesar saga.
It opens with a scene-setting crawl, getting the audience caught up to where we are in this particular iteration of the Apes saga. We’re five years out from the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and tensions with the dwindling and increasingly desperate human population have never been higher. A charismatic and bloodthirsty military Colonel (Woody Harrelson) sees the apes as an existential threat, striking at the settlement of the apes’ leader Caesar (Andy Serkis), causing heavy casualties. Caesar has always been reluctant to open conflict between the species, but the attack on his camp forces him to reexamine his pacifist ways. The Colonel has locked down his army in a fortified compound, funnelling captured apes into large, caged-in pens. With the help of an eccentric escapee, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), Caesar looks to infiltrate the Colonel’s base, rescue his brethren and end the threat once and for all.
It’s no secret that these films are visual marvels, but on the third time of asking, what is perhaps most astonishing about War for the Planet of the Apes is how perfunctory it all feels. You never think twice about the computer generation required to bring the apes to life, or the motion capture that formed their backbone. They’re simply characters, just like their live action flesh and blood counterparts. It’s the ultimate compliment, a testament to the amount of hard work required to make all of this look so easy without a hair out of place. Director Matt Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin (both returning from Dawn) push the visual aesthetic even further away from the modern society of Rise and into a world that barely resembles what came before it. Holocaust imagery is laid on thick, especially as the action shifts to the Colonel’s base. It’s a decent look that reinforces the themes of the film and makes sense in context, but it can feel a tad derivative at times.
That’s an accurate way to describe the whole experience of watching War for the Planet of the Apes, really. Something just seems to be missing throughout the entire film. It could be the sense that the human characters are not close to as dynamic as in previous installments; there are only two non-ape characters of real note, and neither is particularly well-sketched. Harrelson is a strong presence and gives a good performance, but his character doesn’t amount to all that much more than a cheap Colonel Kurtz analogue. He isn’t given the proper motivation to make his character compelling beyond his performance. The other human of note, a mute girl played by relative newcomer Amiah Miller, also doesn’t have enough oomph in the script (from Reeves and Dawn collaborator Mark Bomback) to be more than a young girl in peril. All of the focus is on Caesar and his internal conflict, his struggle with the hope for peace and the need to fight. This is where the film is strongest, which is all well and good, and Serkis continues his string of flawless motion capture performances. But that ends up making the half-cooked characters and plot lines look even weaker in comparison.
It doesn’t help that War for the Planet of the Apes doubles down on one of the weaker aspects of Rise: making too many on-the-nose allusions to the 1968 original. They were cute if at times groaners in Rise, and the choice to heavily minimize that approach in Dawn was a shrewd one. But here these moments serve to break the spell of the story with little benefit more than a few knowing nods from those who saw the film that started all of this. And with a script that’s otherwise uneven and a little empty, these moments detract from the overall feel of the film far more than they did in Rise. Make no mistake; War for the Planet of the Apes is still more than a cut above the The Mummys and the Transformers: The Last Knights of the summer blockbuster season, but it can’t help but feel disappointing coming off the better films that came before it. As a continuation of Caesar’s story and a visual spectacle, War for the Planet of the Apes intermittently satisfies, but not enough to overcome its weaknesses or stand up to its earlier installments. The whole is simply less than the sum of its parts.