It's no problem making a case for Matt Reeves' War for the Planet of the Apes as both an intimate, epic adventure and one of the best movies of the summer. But first let's heap praise on the landmark performance of Andy Serkis as ape-leader Caesar. The British actor created the role in 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt, and in 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Reeves. Now he plays the charismatic chimp – a born leader of monkeys – again with a resonant power and depth of feeling that's nearly Shakespearean. Oscar, get busy: Serkis deserves the gold. Yes, he's that good.
So far, Academy deadheads have refused to wake up and smell the digital, insisting that a mo-cap (motion-capture) performance is not truly acting. WTF! Serkis is on set with the other performers; it's his voice, facial expressions, body language and emotional heat that the camera captures. The visual effects are, in the actor's apt words, "digital makeup." He's already set the gold standard for mo-cap acting as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings franchise. Now he tops himself, bringing the character to fresh heights of ferocity and feeling, as well as ending the new Apes trilogy on a note of indelible triumph.
And the movie's not bad either. In fact, War for the Planet of the Apes – No. 9 in the simian cinema canon – is the best of the Apes films since the 1968 original with Charlton Heston memorably hating on the "damn, dirty apes" who dared to lay a hand on him. In the nearly half-century since, our loyalties have shifted from man to monkey. As War kicks off, humans have been decimated by a virus and apes have grown more intelligent and vocal. Caesar and his tribe want to live in peace with what's left of humanity. But there's vengeance in the air.
A Colonel, played by a sensational Woody Harrelson as a cross between Marlon Brando's bald-pated nutjob Kurtz in Apocalypse Now and Donald Trump at his most 'other"-fearing, wall-building fanatical, is hellbent on ape genocide.
That's the conflict cooked up by Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback. And it serves the film well even when the director lets thematic heaviness slow down the narrative momentum. Much-needed humor comes with the monkeyshines of Bad Ape, a new character played by a terrific Steve Zahn. But the stakes are high for everyone, including Nova (Amiah Miller), a mute girl the apes have taken under their wing.
Still, it's combat and conflict that propels the film. The Colonel has forcibly recruited his own army of simian soldiers to work for his cause. Casear and his orangutan second-in-command Maurice (Karin Konoval) plan an exodus that will allow the tribe to escape. But when the villain's plan of attack touches our hero's own family, revenge becomes the chief motivator. The action sequences, including a prison break, are thunderously exciting, driven by Michael Seresin's vibrant camerawork and Michael Giacchino's robust score. Reeves achieves visual wonders even in the stillness before all hell breaks loose. It's what makes War for the Planet of the Apes such a unique and unforgettable experience – that, and Serkis's career-high performance. Hail Caesar, indeed.