Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Karin Konoval
Plot: Caesar (Serkis) leads his apes into the woods to escape the humans, while a crazed Colonel (Harrelson) is tasked with finding him and killing him.
The Planet of the Apes prequel films are always the opposite of what you expect. Rise sets itself up to be a prequel where the ape’s uprising comes to life, and while it definitely ends that way, Rupert Wyatt takes the long-winded road to get to that point, so we are treated to an interesting character study, which is pretty much still fuelling the emotional grit of the prequel series. Dawn promised constant fighting and instead was a microcosm for the war in Iraq, with the battle of resources muddying a potential alliance. War also follows that road, the two big battles in the film relegated to either the opening scene or the background of the finale, rather than the forefront of the story. It might frustrate some viewers that aren’t getting the film they expected, but for those people who simply love cinema, War for the Planet of the Apes is a resoundingly beautiful film experience.
The interesting thing is the way the films portray humanity. In Rise and Dawn, there was some hope for humanity. James Franco was a fine leading man, trying to stop the outbreak of apes using peaceful resolution. In Dawn, both the apes side and the human sides had good and bad people, several members of each faction wanting to find a way to co-exist on the planet. In War, humans are relegated to the villains of the piece. There are several sobering reality checks during this film, where the audience is reminded that, in this universe, humans have done too many bad things to deserve the place on this earth. I won’t spoil how the film ends up for the humans, but note that final appearance from them from a religious critical stand-point: again, perhaps not the conclusion you wanted, yet the choice ending speaks volumes. Reeves’ portrayal of humans is fascinating, especially when paired with the apes. As Caesar’s group learns more language, humans feel less human. There is an interesting plot twist that further proves this point, but Reeves flexes his symbolic muscles in far more subtle ways. For one, Woody Harrelson’s villain is never given a name, his Colonel a creature from your nightmares. For half the film, he is a shadowy tale of myth in the ape tribe. His men are no different. As the humans line up to chant each morning, like some bizarre tribal ritual, they seem closer to animals than the apes, crazed men hungry for war. The fight for survival has reduced them to shadows of their former self. Harrelson’s character fears devolution, unaware he is caught in the middle of his descent into the very thing he is running from. It is also telling how big a cast shift we have had. In Rise, Andy Serkis was the only ape that truly mattered, even Koba and Maurice reduced to cameos. In Dawn, the apes were more prominent, only with some big names like Oldman and Clarke to help the movie billing. In War, the humans have really taken a back seat. It even hints at human resurgents, turning to the ape’s side in the final act, only to rob us of such a plot development. Humans are really too far gone. The other side of the argument is the addition of a young, mute girl, who Maurice takes under his wing. She accepts the ape culture, learns to co-exist with them and the monkeys happily tolerate her. She steals the most heart-breaking scenes of the film (Serkis finds himself fighting for MVP player title for the first time in the series), mainly due to the whimsical feeling of what could have been.
Meanwhile, away from the humans, the apes are gloriously realised. The CGI and motion capture technology seems almost boring to compliment now, its realisation so obviously wondrous, it feels like a cheap win for the team. But there is nothing cheap about it. The animation is so strong we forget we are even watching digitally created creatures. As the film lumbers to an opening, we wonder if we will even recognise Caesar, Rocket or Blue-Eyes from the last film. Surely, they all get reduced to the same black furred chimp when seen from afar. But no, as soon as you lay eyes on Serkis, you know who he is. It is astonishing to see Serkis’ performance bleed through the CGI, the regret, anger and internal war raging behind his eyes, clearly visible. As the apes tackle extreme climates, not seen in the last two films, the animators come to life, seeing apes shivering with snow clinging to their bodies or rain running down their fur. While the animation is so good, you almost forget it is there (amazing seeing how almost every cast member is digital), occasionally it finds new ways to shock. The most telling part about Reeves’ confidence in his primate protagonists is that they hold the screen for far longer than most movie producers would have been comfortable with. This is no longer the Caesar show, but a whole range of supporting cast of apes fill the screen. The most impressive thing is how much we care about them. Maurice is well established already, although his development finds new ground to cover. Steve Zahn steps into the cast list, as a wildly important figure, a chimp who broke out of a zoo and convinced his name is ‘Bad Ape’ because his captors constantly named him that. But even the lesser cast have pages of depth that is outstandingly well translated through motion capture performance. A gorilla named Winter is crippled by fear that the humans will get them. Rocket reels from the loss of his loved ones, but finds solace in his loyalty to Caesar. One gorilla has betrayed Caesar to work with the humans in return for his life and the flashes of horror at the extent of his actions bleed beautifully through the performance. The monkeys have far more depth than the humans. In fact, the best thing about War for the Planet of the Apes is how satisfying the finished result is especially when it mainly consists of apes signing to one another and wordless performances. Matt Reeves’ direction is amazing to behold. No, this might not be the movie you wanted, but you cannot help but be glad it is the one you got.
Final Verdict: With more emphasis on the apes and the remarkable motion capture technology, War is a wonderful entry in the Apes canon.