This series has a real bad time when it comes to titles. Rise should have been called ‘Dawn’, Dawn should have been called ‘Rise’ and War should have been called ‘The Great Ape Escape’. Missed opportunities.
War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) is an adventure drama written by Mark Bomback and director Matt Reeves (Dawn for the Planet of the Apes, Cloverfield) It stars Andy Serkis once again as Caesar, whose trapped in bloody guerrilla warfare with a vengeful group of human soldiers led by the maddened Colonel (Woody Harrelson). However, after the apes suffer horrible losses, Caesar sets out on a mission of revenge to finally end the human threat and secure the future of his blossoming primate society.
No one expected 6 years on from the release of the soft-reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes we would be heralding this franchise as possessing one of the greatest sci-fi trilogies of all time. Fitting for the series itself, this film and the previous Dawn proves that intelligence and power can come from the most unexpected of locations. So while War may not reach the heights of its spectacular predecessor, it still exists as an incredibly potent and biblical end to Caesar’s journey and this prequel trilogy as a whole.
Now the biggest selling point of War is also one of the movie’s greatest strengths and so its worth starting off by talking about the motion-capture. I thought it’d be impossible to improve over the work done in Dawn but my god, they did it. Not only has fully CGI characters never looked so convincing before, the movie relies on the apes in a way that really brings the incredible work to the foreground. The solid majority of this film follows exclusively CGI characters with nary a human in sight and the motion-capture never wavers in convincing you these apes exist. This is bolstered by some spectacular cinematography that seems to go out of its way to put the apes in tricky to film situations. On horseback in the snow while interacting with human characters? No problem! Hundreds of apes in a single shot covered in dust? No problem at all. If this movie is remembered for anything, its going to be for the visual effects – and deservedly so.
However, the CGI apes are far from the only thing going for War. Now lets tear this bandage off now – for a movie with ‘War’ in the title, this is not the film most people are expecting. While it does present some great action, this is very much a serious, slow-paced character drama that appreciates subtle moments over bombastic explosions. And while that’s going to be aggravating to many with Michael Bay-esque expectations, this deliberate approach by Matt Reeves makes for a far superior film than a movie that just throws spectacle on the screen. War continues the story of Caesar and his apes in effective and clever ways that reinforces how good the character work and themes of this trilogy have been, giving the audience plenty to digest while also delivering a consistently engaging experience. Not every character moment lands unfortunately, mostly due to a few feeling extremely rushed, but for the most part these CGI apes have more character and pathos than the vast majority of other blockbuster protagonists and that is truly an impressive feat.
This achievement is certainly bolstered by the cast being filled with stellar performances. While Andy Serkis isn’t required to show quite as much range is he did in Dawn, he’s still just as good as he always is. Whether he deserves an Oscar nomination as a motion-capture actor is certainly a discussion worth having, but regardless he’s at least part of the reason Caesar is such a compelling character. Performances from Karin Konoval, Terry Notary and Steve Zahn as returners Maurice and Rocket and comic-relief newcomer Bad Ape respectively are all fantastic too, with Maurice especially enjoying some incredibly touching scenes with newcomer Nova. Nova, played by Amiah Miller, almost steals scenes as a mute young girl that the apes come across, as a character who provides some much needed pathos for the human side of the conflict. Counteracted by this is Woody Harrelson as the Apocalypse Now inspired Colonel. He’s easy to hate, but doesn’t make an incredible impression outside of a handful of scenes.
The only place where War gets rough is in the third act climax. A handful of deus ex machinas and rushed moments seriously mutes the power of what should be a strong three film finale. However, this is more than made up for by the final moments, where Caesar’s journey finally becomes realised and the film dives headfirst into its biblical undertones to end the trilogy on the most appropriate yet bittersweet final note imaginable. So while the bad taste of the action climax lingers, its hard not to leave the cinema ultimately satisfied that this incredibly well realised and emotional character arc has finally reached its conclusion.
While a few minor problems like the third act, an unspectacular villain and a number of rushed moments means it doesn’t quite top Dawn in my mind, War for the Planet of the Apes still remains as an incredibly strong trilogy closer. It may be steady and quiet, but never loses its dramatic potency and its really something special to see such a strong trilogy of movies come from franchise blockbuster film-making. And if anything, War bodes very well regarding how Matt Reeves is going to handle the next Batman movies.
General Audiences: Highly Recommended
Film Buffs: Highly Recommended