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We’ve seen the rise of the apes, and the dawn of a new ape world. But nothing compares to Matt Reeves’ closing chapter in the origin trilogy for the Planet of the Apes franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes. Reeves has crafted a riveting, emotionally complex, and wholly satisfying closing chapter in the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the ape leader who was thrust into power without asking for it. Not only is War for the Planet of the Apes one of the best films of the year, but its a crown jewel for the decades long series, placing it well within the top three entries in the franchise.

Picking up two years after the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar and his apes are hiding away from the world, trying to avoid an inevitable war with the humans that Koba begun. But a crazed human leader, known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), is tracking Caesar and his apes for one mission: annihilation. Under the impression that if he wipes out the apes, humanity has a chance at survival, the Colonel will stop at nothing to destroy every last damn dirty ape in existence, even if it means going to war with his own kind in the process.

For a big summer blockbuster film, War for the Planet of the Apes is a gamble in a lot of ways. While the franchise is known, this isn’t a big, fun, action packed spectacle that many have come to associate with this time of year, and thank goodness for that. Instead, Matt Reeves has crafted a film that is veiled as a blockbuster, but in actuality is classic war film, with shades of prison break out films, going directly against the grain of the summer mold. War for the Planet of the Apes is such a big breath of fresh air in a summer that’s been more than a little disappointing, joining the ranks of some of the best films of the year by subverting expectations, and rewarding its viewers with complex character arcs, and a story that feels honest, earned, and real.

It’s amazing how quickly Matt Reeves, along with Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt, were able to take a franchise that was nearly on the brink of obscurity for the modern audience, and breathe new life into it. Even more impressive, however, is that they’ve also created a trilogy of films that could arguably be in the conversation of all time great trilogies. That all comes down to the story of Caesar, brought to life, once again, by Andy Serkis. His character’s journey truly comes full circle in this film, and it’s great to have a story that feels complete. There’s just something so satisfying about getting to watch Caesar, now in the twilight of his life, taking a stand for the apes, in one final battle with the humans. He may not have caused the war, but he loves his troop, and he’ll do anything to protect them. Of course, he’s a much more hardened, weary version of the character we love, but Serkis brings him to life in what may be his strongest performance as Caesar. He can do so much beneath the motion capture, really giving this character life, proving he’s truly the master of the craft.

Reeves has made sure that this film feels like a satisfying closing chapter for Caesar’s character, which is truly to be applauded. In a world where every film seems to set up the next, there’s something really gratifying about getting to the end of a story, knowing this is where the journey ends. But in order to have a proper conclusion, you need to make sure the characters get proper resolution, and that’s something War for the Planet of the Apes does very well. The biggest conflict is the war left by Koba, and how it’s impacted Caesar. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, in many ways, is a human version of Koba, and his war isn’t just with Caesar, but with anyone who stands in the way of his goals. This is a great way to play off how Caesar sees a bit of Koba in himself, and really makes an interesting dichotomy between he and the Colonel. Also, while Dawn of the Planet of the Apes never truly draws a line in the sand on which side’s a villain and which side’s not, War does. In a war film like this, it’s only natural to have good vs. evil, and while Caesar walks somewhere in that middle gray area, having those two sides for him to weave in and out of is important for his character’s growth.

Of course, this is a war film, so there’s got to be some action, and Reeves delivers on that in many ways. But what he’s done so brilliantly is that all the action is character based, as well as story based, and not just action for the sake of action. That gives each set piece a distinctive energy, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats, because you’re never sure exactly where Reeves will take it. He’s mastered the ways of faking out the audience, subverting their expectations. It’s smart, and keeps the audience on their toes. In particular, there’s a prison break sequence that is a lot of fun, as well as character heavy. One thing I like is that the prison scenes are an interesting nod to the future of the series, or the past depending on how one wants to look at it, with some callbacks to the 1968 film. In fact, not only is there some subtle nods to the classic series, but there’s one character in particular who has a role in this movie, and that’s Nova. Though this time, Nova is young girl, and is actually helping the apes in their journey. Amiah Miller is a fantastic addition to the series, giving a truly wonderful performance in the role, thankfully, instead of feeling like a throwaway character.

Make no mistake about it, War for the Planet of the Apes is a fantastic film that will grab the audience from beginning to end. This is a big crowd pleasing film in a way that one may not expect, and that’s a huge compliment. Matt Reeves has crafted a truly wonderful trilogy capper that is emotional, fun, harrowing, and complex, but best of all, it’s fulfilling. Andy Serkis gives his strongest performance as Caesar, and it’ll be a shame if he’s overlooked at the Academy Awards once again next year for his work here. This is the kind of film that will stay with the audience until long after the lights come up, making them want to revisit it again and again. It’s so great to have the Planet of the Apes series back in such a big way over the last few years, and deservedly so. This will not only go down as one of the best films in the franchise, but it’s hard to believe that this film won’t be in the conversation at the end of the year as one of best films of 2017.

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