To everyone’s surprise, what they cooked up was the excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Supported by a great performance by Andy Serkis and some wonderfully realistic CGI, Rise cleverly explained the sudden leap in ape intelligence and the rapid decline in human population which would eventually create the future Earth on which Charlton Heston would eventually bellow, “Damn you all to hell!”
Like Batman Begins, this smart origin tale spawned a fantastic trilogy and thankfully the often difficult third act is every bit as good as the previous two instalments. With Dawn director Matt Reeves returning to the director’s chair, War for the Planet of the Apes continues the story of Caesar’s attempts to live in peace, free of human interaction and conflict. But we know that isn’t going to last long, and a new villain enters to eradicate Caesar and his kind for good. Contrary to the film’s title, what ensues is actually more of a revenge/prison drama than a war film. But nonetheless there is action a-plenty, it packs a good emotional punch and neatly wraps up the series whilst setting up the promise of another to come. Those who loved Rise and Dawn will most certainly enjoy War, and to his credit Reeves has kept the tone consistent and satisfying, delivering what could actually be the crown jewel of the series and a career-best film.
War is definitely the darkest outing of the three, with some of the cruelty on display echoing a Holocaust movie – which is clearly the point. This is a bleak and cruel world and one cannot help but draw comparisons to Schindler’s List. However, in a film where talking Gorillas and Orang-utans wield assault rifles and ride horses, the impact of those comparisons is somewhat lessened. There were also moments the filmmakers could’ve pushed the boundaries a little further for greater impact, but instead they played it safe, especially with the morality of our central hero.
War continues its cautionary tale of not meddling with nature and the importance of extending mercy toward your enemies. One cannot help but feel for the sorrowful plight of Caesar, a laboratory animal cursed with great power which leads to a life of immense personal suffering. Woody Harrelson’s villainous Colonel is a standard bad guy, though he is given one poignant moment to explain what motivates his ruthlessness. It also provides another plot point that edges us closer to the Apes world that Charlton Heston will one day arrive upon; it’s a simple yet effective piece of reverse-engineer screenwriting that is quite commendable. In addition, Steve Zahn’s ‘Bad Ape’ character is a breath of levity in this sombre tale, injecting some much needed vocal personality into an ensemble of primates that mostly communicate with hand signals and hoots.
Like the previous films, the computer-generated apes in War are a wonder to behold. Most impressive are the extreme close-ups, which are so photo-realistic you simply cannot see the digital seams no matter how hard to try. Reeves wisely treats the apes as characters instead of visual effects, and Serkis again proves himself the master of motion capture performance. The only negative aspects of the film could have been addressed easily; an overuse of lingering reaction shots clutter the second-half and cheapen the emotional impact of otherwise powerful moments, and witnessing a horse effortlessly support the crushing weight of a Silverback did push the limits of my disbelief.
Perhaps my biggest surprise with War is the overblown critical response to it, throwing out phrases such as “an important film”, a “must see” and “a masterpiece”. While there is much to commend about War, it ultimately plays out like the formulaic Hollywood blockbuster it is, albeit one made with creative integrity and technical brilliance. But by no means does it give us anything we haven’t seen before nor are its revelations unexpected, so it couldn’t quite live up to the hype.
But regardless of expectations, this is a rare studio franchise with smarts and big-budget filmmaking at its best. It’s simply a damn good time at the movies, ticking all the right boxes for a satisfying big-screen adventure with an even bigger heart. What more could you ask for in a post-apocalyptic fantasy about talking monkeys?