One of the many joys of the new Planet of the Apes films — Rise, in 2011; Dawn, in 2014; and now, the breathtaking War for the Planet of the Apes, which opens areawide on Friday — is that they function independently. Rise was the story of a scientist (James Franco), who, in his effort to find a cure for Alzheimer's, inadvertently created a disease that would wipe out humanity as it empowered apes with human intelligence. Dawn depicted the world some years later. Humans tried to survive in San Francisco while a splinter cell of violent apes staged a coup and attempted to destroy humans once and for all. It was a vivid and layered story about power — the need for actual, hydro-electric power, in the humans' case, and the volatile balance of power within and between adjacent societies.
In War, a new and newly morally vexing story unfolds. It's later still. A radical militant sect of humans, led by a Kurtzian figure who goes only by Colonel (Woody Harrelson) wants to eradicate all apes from the earth. But this sect also wants to eradicate humans afflicted with a new mutation of the Simian Flu. The afflicted cannot speak, and this is perceived as a radical genetic regression. (Narratively, it echoes the storyline of Rise. In the first film, apes were becoming more like humans. Now, humans are becoming more like apes.)
But this is Caesar's story. Caesar is the trilogy's central figure and epic hero, played masterfully by the multi-talented Andy Serkis, who will be remembered chiefly for his performance as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films and for Caesar. Caesar is the glue that holds the films together, the ape that started it all. He remains an amazing character, an intelligent and conscientious animal with conflicted allegiances who, above all, wants peace. His quest for revenge propels and animates War.
In an early confrontation, tragedy strikes. Caesar abandons his tribe to hunt down the Colonel and kill him. The Colonel and his disciples have fortified themselves in a Helms-Deepish outpost in the remote expanses of the Canadian Northwest. En route, Caesar and his closest comrades meet a young girl — the film's necessary human element —and a reclusive former zoo ape, "Bad Ape" (Steve Zahn), who instantly becomes this dark franchise's funniest character. Caesar is captured, is put face to face with the man he abhors, and forced to watch his ape-brethren used for slave labor as an imminent and mysterious battle looms. The film's third act delivers multiple high-octane action sequences and a brutal emotional climax
War is 2017's best action movie so far — better than Wonder Woman — and is about as good as the serie's second installment. (It will take some time and reflection to discern which of the second two Apes films represent the series' best.) Both are directed by Matt Reeves and both are visually and thematically darker than 2011's sunny and suburban Rise. The visual effects have also advanced, and the CGI apes in War are as eye-popping and precise as anything the field has yet produced. There are some curiosities: Among other things, the literate graffiti of the Colonel's soldiers — "Ape-pocalypse Now! Bedtime for Bonzo" would seem to represent the screenwriter more than the characters.
But this one's a must-see. One hopes — though cannot expect — that the filmmakers and the producers will not sully the franchise by contriving a string of weak followup episodes after this splendid trilogy has ended with such power and elegance.