Review: War for the Planet of the Apes
The rebooted Apes films have managed to be one of the better surprise success stories in recent Hollywood franchise filmmaking. While apprehension lingered ten years on from director Tim Burton’s stab at a remake, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a success and a rare blockbuster to make use of intellect and compassion as its primary instruments. It gave us a modern iconic character in Caesar (brought to life via motion-capture by Andy Serkis), an evolutionary leap for his species who leads the revolt against oppression that results in catastrophic ruin. The 2014 follow-up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes shifted into darker territory, as the role of compassion takes centre stage with apes and a remaining bastion of mankind attempting to co-exist, a decade after the events which wiped out the majority of the Earth’s human population.
Dawn’s director Matt Reeves returns to helm the third installment War for the Planet of the Apes, upping the ante as Caesar becomes the target for a rogue band of surviving military soldiers, who seek to wipe out the apes by any means necessary to restore man’s place in the hierarchy of beings. Set only two years after Dawn, it is a much gloomier and dismal entry, and not the type of film one would expect to be declared ‘a summer blockbuster’ outside of an overabundance of effects work and originating from a long-and-storied series. Conversely, it is exactly the shock to the system of lowest common denominator risk-averse tentpoles, the something we could certainly use more of (especially with pushing visual effects into new and exciting terrain).
If Dawn found influence from the opening chapter of 2001: A Space Odyssey in documenting advancement of potential amidst strife from warring tribes, War doubles down on the conflict side of that dichotomy, taking cues from several notable war epics like Apocalypse Now and The Bridge on the River Kwai (Much of its third act concerns a daring rescue attempt, in a way that puts the ‘ape’ in The Great Escape). The tense opening follows a battalion of soldiers entering the apes’ woodland camp in an attempt to take them by surprise - not anticipating the defense of the stronghold that leaves most of their men dead.
Caesar, a being of mercy (and greatly improved speech patterns than when we last saw him) spares the few survivors to let them return with a message, but this act is taken with hostility, as the soldiers return only to inflict further damage. With his closest band of compatriots Caesar ventures out towards the military stronghold to avenge his fallen brethren, encountering new allies in Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) a anxious chimpanzee with knowledge of the military’s actions, and Nova (Amiah Miller) a young human girl who represents how the genetic makeup of humans has begun to become altered through the airborne virus.
The primary antagonist Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) holds a demeanor that feels ripped right from the book of Colonel Kurtz; beyond the shaved head he is a man that has become corrupted by the horrors of war and the desire of eradicating the enemy by all means necessary. Harrelson is no stranger to playing these types of authoritative roles, and he makes for a good foil against Caesar through sheer tenacity. The Colonel and his men administer considerable damage on the apes to the point where it’s hard to find sympathy for their will to make a future for themselves. Unlike in Dawn we are not presented with a group of humans to advocate for peace, rather we get the inverse through the former comrades of rebel ape Koba used routinely within military operations. It helps to drive the wedge further in the allegiance across the species, after Caesar sent Koba to his death for not being a true ape, and continue the fractured sense of loyalty and ideals that have persevered through various characters Rise and Dawn.
We do get to see Caesar give into the hostility of Koba that runs within him. Relinquishing his characteristic traits of respect and loyalty, Caesar is forced to dig into his darker traits for the good of his kind; paying the price for his choices and having his worldview experience a paradigm shift through witnessing the Colonel’s methods first hand. Andy Serkis’s work as Caesar have been praised before (and deservedly so), but in War he manages to get more screentime and, from a character basis, take things to another level. The way he manages to make us feel Caesar’s pain and failures is nothing short of brilliant, and here the case for recognizing motion-capture-artists becomes stronger than ever before.
Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback earn reputability points for delivering a big-budget film which makes the most out of intense action sequences as it does for small character-driven moments. Where War falters slightly is from the inclusion of tension-relieving bits of comedy amidst the darkness (ostensibly meant to lighten the mood) which remove the film from the tone present throughout. These moments can’t help but feel like an intervention from studio executives, that also includes a seemingly tacked-on ending that gives Caesar’s arc a resolution and paves the way for more Apes to come.
These issues are relatively minor when considering War for the Planet of the Apes as a whole; it will undoubtedly stand among the year’s top films by sheer virtue of a powerful, dramatic storyline and awe-inspiring effects and score (expect to see both in awards contention later this year). It solidifies the Apes prequels among the last decade’s impressive trilogies, as well as demonstrating that emotionally rich filmmaking on a massive scale is feasible in the right hands.