"No mercy, no peace, this is war. Apes. Together. Strong."
I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how successful this ‘Planet of the Apes’ prequel/reboot has become. Both on a critical and a commercial level the films succeed in winning over critics and audience, delivering a blockbuster that is not only hugely entertaining but also more thoughtful than the average popcorn picture. To make a movie that is labelled as complex but also features a horse riding monkey dual wielding machine guns is not an easy feat.
Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless colonel (Woody Harrelson) who deals a vicious blow against the ape kind. Pitted against the colonel in a fight to the finish that will determine the future of both their species as well as the future of the entire planet, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind.
As well as promising us another excellent movie with each new instalment, but these movies also signal the start of a debate that will last from the moment of its release until Oscar season regarding whether or not Andy Serkis should receive an Oscar nomination. I’m discussing Serkis right at the start because, contrary to its title, ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is not the gigantic conclusion it is being marketed as. It is less of an action film and more of a character study, one that focusses on a character dealing with his own darker instincts and what he is willing to sacrifice in the name of his beliefs, who also just happens to be an ape. It’s a movie that is driven by the decisions of its character and his own moral dilemmas.
Serkis’ performance as Caesar has been consistently great throughout this trilogy, but I think this is where it reached new levels of brilliance. He so acutely conveys the conflict and turmoil brewing within Caesar with hardly a word. There are only a few occasions throughout the movie in which Caesar speaks and only a handful of those are conveying his emotions. We come to understand so much about what motivates him and his progressing state of mind throughout the movie purely on account of Serkis’ masterful performance that so clearly represents an artist in complete control of his craft.
Surprisingly though, we are treated to a number of brilliant performances that can match that of Serkis. Alongside him in the motion capture section is Steve Zahn, who manages to make the comedic sensibilities of Bad Ape work perfectly within the movie. Given that few things can sink a serious science fiction/action movie faster than an annoying comedic side character this is an achievement. Then there is Woody Harrelson as the film’s ruthless antagonist. I went into this movie knowing Harrelson would deliver some appropriate scenery chewing, but what struck me most was the nuance he and the writers injected into his character. Not only does he become completely empathetic but his role in the movie sets him up as a character who can go head to head with Caesar for their levels of complexity as well as their involving presence.
Of course, great performances in a movie like this would mean nothing if the visual effects were not up to the task. But it comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen the previous instalments that the CGI in ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is astonishing. Not just brilliant when they are depicted on a large scale, or interacting with the humans but some of the close up shots honestly had me wondering whether I was actually looking at an image rendered on a computer, something I have not experienced to this degree outside of ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘Terminator 2’.
What is even more remarkable is how Matt Reeves rarely seems to draw attention to the brilliance of these effects. So many movies with impressive special effects linger on them to a point where it distracts from the main narrative but Reeves utilises his effects in a way that only draws the audience deeper into the movie, to a point where the apes feel like an even more realistic presence than the humans. The action sequences are impeccably crafted, as are the moments of high tension and drama that underpin the movie. But where Reeves’ direction excels the most is how he treats the quieter moments of the film. There’s a humane element to them in which the audience are actively encouraged to consider the characters as actual, feeling figures. Moments where we get to see the humanity within and remember why we care about the plight of our protagonist. In a time when so many blockbusters focus on spectacle above all else it feels hugely refreshing to see that spectacle being merged with the intimate aspects of a story so masterfully.
I really am struggling to find any major criticisms with the movie on a broad scale. Any quibbles I have with it would require going into spoiler territory that focus on specific details that I was unsure of. A few contrived plot points, some questionable character decisions and an ending that drags on just a little too long that disregards logic in favour of an emotionally satisfying pay off. Beyond that, there’s little else to bother me.
‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is a thoughtful character study that just happens to be about apes taking over the world. A brilliant end to one of the best trilogies in modern cinema.