Directed By: Matt Reeves
Release Date: July 14, 2017
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval
I have to admit something about my relationship with the Planet of the Apes franchise before I get into talking about War for the Planet of the Apes. Of the five original movies that spanned between 1968 and 1973, I've only seen three in full, and though I respect them, particularly the iconic first entry, I've never been thoroughly enamored with the franchise in the way that, say, Star Wars grabbed me. As a result, when Tim Burton attempted to update the series for the modern day with the Mark Wahlberg-led Planet of the Apes back in 2001, I wasn't as thoroughly let down as many fans were with it, though that's not to say I was in love with it, either, at least not enough to be disappointed - or even care - that nothing more ever came of it.
When Rise of the Planet of the Apes arrived in 2011 to critical acclaim, I missed it, and when its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, hit in 2014, I missed that, too. A part of me knew better, especially because all I ever heard from anyone was about how great the two films were and I have an undying respect for Andy Serkis, but I fell victim to not having enough nostalgia or love for what had come before to have the motivation to see them. But now here we are in 2017, with the third entry in this relaunched and reimagined series in theaters, striking gold at the box office yet again and basking in critical praise, and I finally watched Rise and Dawn ahead of seeing War.
To say I regret having not seen the two films in theaters now would be an understatement, as both films are not just technical marvels but great feats of storytelling, world-building, and character work in which I found myself completely invested in a way the franchise up to this point had never gotten me to be, coming out the other end eagerly awaiting to see where War could take the series - and, in particular, its protagonist, Caesar - next.
War picks up several months after Dawn, with Caesar and his fellow apes locked in battle with the military force that had been called down during the events of Dawn to help wipe out the apes. It's a war Caesar doesn't want, but one that he's stuck with thanks to the actions of his former ally Koba, and after several human troops are captured, Caesar spares their lives to send a message back to their leader - the mysterious Colonel (Woody Harrelson) - that the fighting can end if they just leave each other alone. Unfortunately, the Colonel ignores the olive branch, and after a tragic attack on the apes' home, the apes are forced to flee to find a new one while Caesar becomes hellbent on killing the Colonel, going so far as to leave everyone he knows behind so that he can end this war on his own.
Caesar's revenge mission throughout the first half of the movie feels almost like a Western, with the ape leader and a handful of his loyal friends - series stalwarts Luca the gorilla, Rocket the chimpanzee, and (my personal favorite) Maurice the orangutan - setting out to settle the score. The imagery of the group, armed with guns and trekking through the snow-covered wilderness on horseback, is reminiscent of that genre; sub out Caesar for someone like Clint Eastwood or John Wayne or any other Western icon and the early parts of War would feel right at home with those films of old. War is less about an actual war between men and apes and more about the battle within Caesar himself wherein logic is at odds with emotion, and by isolating Caesar from the comfort and support of hundreds of apes, the film allows for quite a lot of introspection about what he’s becoming and the legacy he’ll leave behind.
Eventually, the film shifts gears in its second half when Caesar inevitably catches up with the Colonel and his men from Western to war movie, only not in the way one would expect. There's action, yes, but the second half of the film is more defined by its focus on the horrors of war rather than the actual act of war. From the existence of a concentration camp to the sight of ape corpses strung up on crosses to subservient, self-serving apes whipping their own, it's haunting, sometimes more in line with Schindler's List than Saving Private Ryan in its deliberate slowdown in pacing but purposely effective in pushing Caesar to the absolute lowest point we've ever seen him in these films, right to the edge of utter despair, and there's a general melancholy over how events play out that help mask its underlining narrative predictability.
On a fundamental story level, War doesn't necessarily bring anything new to the table. There are a number of twists and turns here and there sprinkled throughout, but for the most part, it's easy to see where the film is going if you step back from it for a second. That said, what director Matt Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback do so well here is the coloring in of that narrative with themes of hope and redemption, the juxtaposition of unique imagery (i.e. the shift between the Western genre and the war picture), and the simple fact that we've spent three films with these characters, which raises the stakes in a way that never would've been possible had this been the first film. At the end of the day, we know the basic narrative outcome thanks to the franchise's premise, but our connection to these characters and their fates as individuals means that anything can happen to them along the way.
War does ultimately lead into a point where the fate of the apes as a group hangs in the balance, but as I mentioned earlier, the real war rests on Caesar's shoulders. Over the course of the trilogy, we've seen characters like Rocket go from enemy to true brother and Maurice more than earn his place as the real heart of the group, but we've been on this journey with Caesar from birth to weary adulthood, and War's real strength lies less in its delivery of big action spectacle and more in how powerful of a character Caesar is.
Andy Serkis is truly remarkable in the role, and the belief that motion capture and "digital makeup" - a term coined by Serkis himself - discounts a performance should be stopped once and for all right here. Obviously, everyone at WETA responsible for the ape design deserves every ounce of credit they can possibly get, but it's what Serkis brings to the table that gives Caesar that true spark of life that wouldn't have been possible without him being there on set, living and breathing the character. It's amazing how far he's come from his days crawling around as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, and as much as I love that performance, Caesar is his true crowning achievement (for now, of course).
On a purely technical level, War is an outstanding feat. Far too many times, for instance, I'd forget that Maurice isn't "real," the character's face so astoundingly photorealistic that it never once gets lost in an ape-occupied uncanny valley. The interactions with snow, something new for the series, are seamless, too, clinging to the apes' hair, and there are countless little moments and subtle interactions with environments, objects, and other characters that are easy to overlook but deserve to be recognized because the simple fact that they can be so easily overlooked is a testament to how groundbreaking the work being done here is.
Lest I go on much longer, let me just cover a few quick bases. Humans have always been secondary to Caesar and the apes in these movies, but Woody Harrelson's Colonel makes for a pretty solid antagonist, walking a fine line between tragic and despicable, and the actor definitely makes the most of what he's given here. New additions like Steve Zahn's innocent chimp Bad Ape and Amiah Miller's young human Nova are welcome, the former gifting the film with some much-needed levity without becoming eye-rolling and the latter bringing the heart through her bond with Maurice. Michael Giacchino - one of my favorite modern composers - delivers a score that suits the film so well, playing a notable hand in why the mood is so effective. And, of course, there are a handful of respectful nods to the franchise's legacy peppered throughout that fans will undoubtedly eat up.
War is very much an end to this trilogy while also feeling like the beginning of a whole new era. It's the rare third film that's incredibly satisfying, sticking the landing with a powerful ending that I can't stop thinking about, and if the series were to end here, I'd be completely content. If everyone involved can bring the same passion and dedication in exploring what comes next as they have with this trilogy, I'll be eager and ready to see it, but for now, I'm more than happy with what we've been gifted. This trilogy has made me a fan of a franchise I was never really attached to, and War sealed the deal on that. It's thoughtful, powerful, and genuinely moving in a way many of its contemporary big budget blockbusters don't often try to be, with a character at its center armed with the kind of growth and presence some films can only dream of having, and whether you're a preexisting Apes fan, a lover of science fiction and drama, or even just a fan of good, old-fashioned storytelling and character work, I can't recommend it enough.
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