War for the Planet of the Apes **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Matt Reeves.
Written by: Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves based on characters created by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver.
Starring: Andy Serkis (Caesar), Woody Harrelson (The Colonel), Steve Zahn (Bad Ape), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Amiah Miller (Nova), Terry Notary (Rocket), Ty Olsson (Red Donkey), Michael Adamthwaite (Luca), Toby Kebbell (Koba), Gabriel Chavarria (Preacher), Judy Greer (Cornelia), Sara Canning (Lake), Devyn Dalton (Cornelius), Aleks Paunovic (Winter), Alessandro Juliani (Spear), Max Lloyd-Jones (Blue Eyes).
I’m hard pressed to think of another blockbuster series of recent years that is better than the new Planet of the Apes films have been. Each film is distinct from each other – not just recycling what has come before, but expanding it, and continually building upon it, taking the fall of humanity and rise of ape as seriously as you can in a blockbuster trilogy like this without taking it too seriously. I still that the second film – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – is probably the best of trilogy – it certainly is the most action packed and viscerally exciting, and has the best mixture of human and ape characters – but the first film – Rise of the Planet of the Apes – was perhaps the most emotional (it certainly was the most heartbreaking) – and both lead brilliantly into War of the Planet of the Apes, which caps off the trilogy in a brilliantly. All three films represent blockbuster filmmaking at its current best.
The infighting between Apes that made up the plot of the second film has pretty much been resolved. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are trying to live in peace in the forest – but humans just don’t seem to want to allow that. The opening sequence involves an army searching for Caesar’s hiding spot – and coming very close to it. The apes fight them off – and take a few prisoner. Caesar, trying to show that the apes are not savages, allows them to go free. That ends up being a mistake, and soon more soldiers – this time led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) return – and kill some of Caesar’s family. As the apes ready their next move – hopefully to a safer place – Caesar plots his vengeance on the Colonel. If only a few trusted allies, he sets out to find his enemy.
War of the Planet of the Apes wears its influences on its sleeve – it’s clearly a war movie in many ways, and it takes its lead mainly from Apocalypse Now and other Vietnam war movies (strangely enough, Kong: Skull Island did the same thing – this one does it better). Harrelson’s The Colonel is clearly based on Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz – the gleaming bald head, the way he shaves it, the insane ramblings (this Colonel’s ramblings form a more coherent thought pattern than Kurtz’s – I think, anyway) – and Harrelson clearly relishes playing the bad guy here. As Caesar, Serkis is once again at his best (for better or worse, you’d be hard pressed to find a more influential performer in modern blockbusters than Serkis – who has already plays Gollum and King Kong for Peter Jackson in motion capture, but does career best work in this series). The special effects that allow the apes their expressiveness is quite honestly astonishing – and allows Caesar to become a more complex character here than he was before (in Rise he was more of a victim who fought back, in Dawn he was the principled leader – here, he is a leader, who makes mistakes and puts his own feelings above all else selfishly – and yet, he maintains the hero of the film in part because of how aware he is of his own shortcomings).
In many ways, director Matt Reeves has stepped up his filmmaking game here – the cinematography by veteran Michael Seresin is great, integrating the special effects in with the surroundings – the lush green forest that is made to feel like the jungles of Vietnam in those old movies, the cold blinding snow, the horrible prison camp of the last half. So many modern blockbusters who rely heavily on CGI (like, undeniably this one does) end up looking almost like a candy colored cartoon – this series has been an exception from the start, as it’s blended everything together well. The film goes long stretches with little to no dialogue – it almost exclusively stays with Caesar throughout, and many of the apes cannot talk – but communicate in sign language. Michael Giacchino’s brilliant score, does some of the emotional heavy lifting in those sequences, without laying anything on too thick.
Each film in this series work on its own terms – it doesn’t repeat what came before, but instead deepens it. As a trilogy, the whole is even better than the sum of its parts. Most Hollywood blockbusters don’t have room for ideas – let alone, allow themselves to address the darkest parts of our humanity (from the first film on, we’re clearly on the side of the apes, not the humans) – but this series went there, and did it with style and intelligence. They’re also three amazingly entertaining films. Modern day blockbusters don’t get much better than this series.