After well over a decade in development hell and following the underwhelming mess that was Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes in 2001, the news broke that Rupert Wyatt would be directing a fresh reboot of the franchise starring James Franco, I will admit I was not that excited and didn’t have much hope. Yet in 2009, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a pleasant surprise both financially and critically. It was a breath of fresh air into a franchise that had seemingly run out of steam. The acting was solid, the plot was relevant and often heart-breaking and above all it gave us one of the great modern movie characters; Caesar the chimpanzee portrayed remarkably by Andy Serkis through jaw-dropping motion capture technology which made us all believe that apes could walk, talk and, most importantly, revolt.
Naturally a sequel was made, this time by Cloverfield director Matt Reeves, an odd choice perhaps but one that would turn out to be an inspired one with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes being a fantastic film which showed us Caesar’s evolution from curious genius to reluctant leader and eventually becoming a seminal figure in ape history. Improved special effects and a darker, grittier tone showed us that the Apes series was back and better than ever. Everyone was delighted to hear that Reeves would return to attempt to create something very rare in Hollywood; a great movie trilogy.
With War for the Planet of the Apes he has unequivocally succeeded. Reeves has once again shot a beautiful movie. Despite the fall of mankind, there is a sparse beauty to the natural landscapes and a tragic bleakness in the human settlements and army bases. With Serkis on Oscar-worthy form, Reeves cleverly utilizes a large amount of close-ups capturing all the tender emotions between the Apes as they sign to each other. Yes, it is the third (final?) movie in a trilogy and many will understandably expect plenty of action, and there is, but Reeves doesn’t forget to show all the subtle nuances that the breath-taking special effects team allows the actors to convey. Sometimes there are moments of just silence where the apes sign to each other as the beautiful score by Michael Giacchino gently plays in the background but is never unnoticeable and it’s one of his best since Inside Out. It’s a massive achievement for the performers and special effects team that our attention is held during these quieter scenes. I really appreciated the lack of exposition as Reeves knows that a great movie allows the audience to fill in certain gaps of information.
I don’t think the Academy can continue to ignore just how great Serkis is in these films. Like the audience, he has been with Caesar during all the major events of his life and his remarkable understanding of the character is clearly evident here.
Having established a large colony of apes in the woods and having avoided detection for 2 years since the climax of Dawn, all Caesar wants to do is live peacefully with his fellow apes but with humankind on its last legs and desperate to survive Caesar knows it is only a matter of time before this war finally catches up with him.
One of the things this series has done well has shown the two extremes of human behaviour. Caesar has seen sheer unremitting cruelty and yet knows all too well that humans are capable of good. It is this knowledge that makes this war so personal for him. “I did not start this war. I fight only to protect apes.” he tells soldiers that attempt to attack his colony. The pain of all the fighting is clear. He wants to trust humans but ultimately knows he must fight to survive much like mankind. Steve Zahn is cast in a sort of light comedic relief role as Bad Ape, a chimp that was raised in a zoo but escaped when the simian virus began to decimate the humans. His character could have been ill-advised but his humour is handled with care and he provided a welcome respite as well as the young girl that accompanies the apes who cannot speak to due to her having an advanced form of the simian virus. Her role is minor but allowed the apes to witness the innocence that man is capable of. They’re not all monsters and her performance was quite good especially surrounded by endless mo-cap performances.
One of the few problems I felt the franchise had previously was that the human characters were not as developed as I would have liked but in War that is not an issue. Most of the action follows the apes as they fight against the soldiers of Alpha-Omega led by The Colonel (the vastly underrated Woody Harrelson), a ruthless man with only one goal; wipe out the apes and save humanity. While he may be evil, his sheer will is to be admired and the reasons for his actions are clear and he provided a fine foe for Caesar.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a fantastic addition to a great series and is arguably the best of the three. The action is fantastically directed and there are several scenes that really hit emotionally. It’s quite amazing that a movie about talking apes could be so thematically complex. and rewarding. It has immediately entered my top five movies of 2017 and I highly recommend everyone to check it out, especially fans of the series as it graciously sticks the landing. Reeves will next tackle the solo Batman movie featuring Ben Affleck and I’m really looking forward to seeing if he can bring the rich characterisation and themes to the Dark Knight. If his work on Apes is any indication then the future is bright (or should that be dark?) for DC.
For now, apes together are indeed strong.
Until next time…
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