Two things first. One, War for the Planet of the Apes is an entirely excellent bit of popcorn drama, the first summer movie of 2017 (an important, subtly different thing than any old movie released in the summer) that I think has a fighting chance of still being passionately remembered 20 years hence, but having seen it, I am in no ways surprised by its quick fade at the box office. I'd be more surprised by the opposite, in fact. This is a suffocatingly dour motion picture, easily the most straight-up depressing big-budget studio tentpole since The Dark Knight, or at least The Dark Knight Rises.* Whether that is earned or not is, I think, a matter of individual taste, but it's a franchise that has thrived on downbeat, morbid storylines for a half-century now, so...

Two, I have called it "entirely excellent", and I stand by that, but it's also a little too comfortable tracing back over Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the most recent film in the franchise and till now the second-best (I hold it to be a truth self-evident that a Planet of the Apes film better than the original 1968 Planet of the Apes is a theoretical impossibility). And moreover, I feel that if you took the first half of Dawn... and the second half of War... and stitched them together - which you could do with fairly minor revisions - you'd have the best summer movie of the 2010s.† In their current form, neither film can reach such a lofty height. In the particular case of War..., the more obvious problems include an extremely logy pace - the 2-hour and 20-minute film is already comfortably the longest of the eight Planet of the Apes films to date, and the running time is palpable - and a script by Mark Bomback and director Matt Reeves that spends a little bit of time (oh, let's be fair, a lot of time) stuck in the mode where things that are extremely sad are held to be extremely serious and thus much more artistic. And just to make sure how artistic it is, it repeats things, both plot points and explicit declarations of theme, to make absolutely sure we get it.

So not, alas, an instant-masterpiece nor any real challenge to the supremacy of the 1968 Planet of the Apes as the series' best film, but on its own terms, and in the midst of the desert that has been the summer movie season in 2017, it's a tremendous achievement. Building on the setting and conflicts established over the course of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (which depicted the dawn of the planet of the apes) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (which depicted the rise of the planet of the apes), War... seems to have grown comfortable enough with the conceit of having our sympathetic protagonist come in the form of a talking CGI chimpanzee that it's willing to roll the dice on turning its attention away from summertime spectacle, to see if it can't work as a character drama set against the backdrop of a cold winter and the endless conflict between two struggling populations in a post-apocalyptic world that seems to be emptied of every other form of life. Learning that Reeves & Bomback's viewing list before they sat down to write this one included the likes of The Bridge on the River Kwai (based on a novel by Planet of the Apes creator Pierre Boulle), for that sort of psychological study hiding just beneath the surface of an action epic is very much where this new film wants to be.

It's not as good as The Bridge on the River Kwai, obviously, nor even particularly close, but it's fucking impressive for a 2017 CGI-dominated popcorn movie to be this much of a gravely sober-minded character drama as this, and the gamble certainly paid off: Caesar the hyper-intelligent chimpanzee (mo-capped and voiced by Andy Serkis) is an eminently worthy character, better even than he already was in the last two movies, when he was the best VFX protagonist ever. In fact, if there's one area where War for the Planet of the Apes excels beyond imagining, where it proves itself as a stone-cold masterpiece of cinema, it's in the extraordinary quality of its CGI cast. Caesar was great in Rise..., Caesar and Toby Kebbell's Koba (who gets a brief dream cameo here) were great in Dawn..., but War... relies extensively on a whole nascent civilisation's worth of expressive, convincing CGI apes having depth and weight and real truth to them.

Unlike in the last two films, human beings played by flesh and blood actors have been reduced to the status of half-seen villainous bogeymen, only emerging as tangible figures in the second half. So the apes have to count for everything, and they do that with flying colors: Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval) and Rocket the chimpanzee (Terry Notary), neither of them new faces in this series, emerge with emotionally resonant personalities like never before - Maurice especially, with his probing, serious, concerned eyes - and the film trots out several new characters just as strong, including Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a pitiable little torture victim whose confusion functions as the closest thing this bleak, bitter film has to comic relief (and effectively, I'd say; it's more sad than funny, which is all this film could bear, tonally), Lake (Sara Canning), in love with Caesar's son, who stands in for all of the apes who end up in prison midway through the film, and Donkey (Ty Olsson), a quisling gorilla serving the humans. Such is the effectiveness with which the film builds out these characters that when we see Lake for the first time after a while, I gasped a little bit at how bad she looked after her mistreatment - the CGI fucking chimpanzee achieved this thing.

Anyway, the film's story includes elements of "war breaks moral beings" cautionary fable, both with Caesar's increasingly toxic pursuit of revenge, and the wrath of a nameless human colonel (Woody Harrelson, effective in a role that offers very little nuance) who has turned into a Kurtzian madman thanks to his commitment to miltarism; it also includes a stoic tale of navigating a fallen world and finding the scraps of hope where you can and rebuild with them, introducing a little human girl (Amiah Miller, excellent in reacting with warmth to a bunch of special effects) who becomes Caesar's tether to his humanity simianity; and most of the last hour is a prison break movie. It's in the last third of these that I think the film reaches its heights, both because Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin come up with some excellent ways to freshen up the standard military POW camp visual clichΓ©s, and because Michael Giacchino's score really takes off at this point. The music throughout is great, Giacchino's best work since Up, but it's the nerve-stretching cues he writes for the prison break where it becomes a real masterpiece of popcorn film scoring, using relatively ascetic orchestrations to hit the audience emotionally while keeping the tension taut and sweaty through the relentless rhythm of his motifs.

The result of all this - the grave, dour character study that threads through the whole film, and the increasing adventure movie tension that grows tighter and tighter throughout - is that War for the Planet of the Apes is an exhausting movie overall, though I think an exceedingly pleasurable one. It is about as anti-fun as something can get and still plausibly fall into the category of summertime popcorn movie; but once a year, this kind of ultra-serious pop-opera (which I mean literally; Giacchino climaxes the score with a passage that's not quite the finale of Das Rheingold, but it sure as hell makes you think about it) can be a nice corrective to the general fluffiness of the season, and in the enormously airheaded summer of 2017 particularly. It's a suitable capstone to the best franchise of the 2010s, and if, as seems likely, this is to be the last Planet of the Apes movie for a good long while, they certainly did a good job of ending it with a heaving, emotional stinger that feels earned both by this film itself, and by the two films preceding it. Not bad for something with both feet planted so firmly in the world of trashy pulp sci-fi. Not bad at all.

Reviews in this series
Planet of the Apes (Schaffner, 1968)
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (Post, 1970)
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (Taylor, 1971)
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (Thompson, 1972)
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (Thompson, 1973)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Wyatt, 2011)
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2014)
War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2017)

*"That's just SUMMERTIME tentpoles, of course, I meant that all the time," he immediately clarified in a panicky fluster, terrified that somebody might catch him in the lie by mentioning the not-yet-six-months-old Logan.

†"Well of course I meant AMERICAN movies, that was IMPLIED," he choked out, before anybody could pipe up with Mad Max: Fury Road.