REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

A modern trilogy draws to a close in thundering fashion. Did Oscar go ape for the “final” chapter? 

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The Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy has been able to set a high bar for quality blockbuster filmmaking and has, in my opinion, gotten consistently better with each successive film, rising from rock solid to truly legendary. Matt Reeves makes lightning strike twice with an epic conclusion to this series in War for the Planet of the Apes; an intimate yet operatic character-driven war film that works both as a tonal successor to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as well as a standalone dystopian sci-fi drama.

Caesar’s clan is at war with a fanatically dangerous human military faction known as Alpha-Omega. Caesar (Andy Serkis) attempts to make peace with the humans as long as his clan is left alone. However, other apes who followed the rogue ape Koba such as the gorilla Red (Ty Olsson) have defected after being disillusioned with Caesar’s leadership. Caesar plans to relocate the clan across the desert, not wanting to suffer any more ape casualties after Koba’s attack on San Francisco. The night before their journey, Alpha-Omega, led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), launches an assault on the ape home, and personal tragedy causes Caesar to go on a suicidal mission for vengeance against The Colonel. Joined by his longtime allies Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary), Caesar encounters an enigmatic human girl (Amiah Miller), as well as an evolved chimp calling himself “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), who knows where The Colonel and his troops are located.

What more can be said about Serkis’ portrayal of Caesar that hasn’t already been said? He’s delivered on a consistently emotionally-charged, thoughtful and engaging level throughout this trilogy. Here, he gets more of a human-like speech pattern and more dialogue than in previous films, allowing us to feel his humanity (for lack of a better word) more clearly. This is the role of a lifetime for him, as iconic now as Charlton Heston’s Taylor is today. Harrelson has a terrifying slasher presence about him as The Colonel, but he manages to infuse just enough believable humanity that you understand why he is the way he is, but not so much that you feel any sympathy for him. Konoval’s tender and wise expressions and mannerisms ensure that Maurice is a consistently heartfelt and welcome presence throughout, and Notary puts in dependable work as the loyal and brave Rocket. Like Dafne Keen in this year’s Logan, we have another outstanding performance from a very young actress; Miller is able to hold the emotional focus of the audience through her eyes and expressions alone, without so much as a word. Zahn is surprisingly endearing and humorous as Bad Ape; despite his very strange appearance and voice, he is a welcome character to cut the tension wherever necessary. Other noteworthy performances are from Olsson as the sly and duplicitous gorilla, Red, Judy Greer in some tender moments as Cornelia, Caesar’s mate, and Devyn Dalton holds his own amongst the other young apes in the clan.

As expected from Reeves, this is a magnificently directed film, with a grandness and scale to it that never feels bloated or unearned. His eye for framing characters and action, as well as keeping the story and plot visually engaging, is quite astonishing, even between characters communicating exclusively through sign-language. The use of the latter and the reliance on characters who almost never speak a word of English, if at all, also lends itself well to the visual medium, and the apes always command such presence. Reeves manages to implement Bad Ape’s comic relief at all the right times, which never outstays its welcome and, in such a bleak narrative, it is necessary. The film opens with a strong action scene of apes versus humans, and ultimately concludes with a massive (if overly-promoted) climactic battle, but between those scenes it is a slow-burner driven by powerful character drama.

The action itself is well-staged and suspenseful, and everything has a real sense of tactile solidity, from the fights between humans and apes to the hazards of nature. The aforementioned battles near the beginning and end of the film are suitably cinematic in quality, but even the smaller skirmishes and brief tussles have an impact to them from both a technical and an emotional standpoint.

The CGI is by far the best of this trilogy, improving on even the stellar effects of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Weta Digital continues to outdo themselves with these films. These apes are some of the most photorealistic CGI characters ever created, if not the actual peak of such creations, and represent a high point for us all to strive for. If, in the first movie, the toughest trick was to get audiences on board with photorealistic motion-capture apes, then this film wears that accomplishment proudly and perfects it. The cinematography by Michael Seresin emphasises the brooding darkness and icy cold atmosphere of the frozen mountain ranges, bringing out that sense of desolation and despair throughout.

The score by Michael Giacchino is another well-rounded achievement, with melancholic melodies that surmise the themes and emotions of this trilogy, as well as many ominous cues that feel right at home in Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score for the original Planet of the Apes. Better still, Giacchino knows when silence and ambience is enough to carry a scene, or enhance the already ominous storytelling.

War feels like a natural culmination of the last two films, and you come to understand the context and reasoning for Caesar’s journey from naive chimpanzee to an embittered, seasoned and wise leader. For all his strengths and abilities, Caesar is ultimately a reluctant warrior, still dealing with the aftermath of Koba’s rogue actions, still wanting peace rather than war. When he is thrust back into fighting, we see him really struggle with his strength of character and his quest for vengeance. Because he’s so human, he ultimately has many of our pitfalls; Caesar’s better judgement and outlook is harshly tested as he continues to go down that dangerous path, and we see how it affects the apes he swore to protect.

War owes much of its subtext and tone to Vietnam War films such as Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now and Platoon, particularly with references to the apes as the “Kongs” by the Alpha Omega faction. The conflict of interests is reminiscent of Marlow and Kurtz, with striking visuals such as descending helicopters raining fire upon an enemy and the claustrophobic nature of the initial forest scenes. The phrase “Ape-Pocalypse Now” is graffitied onto a sewer wall. Also, the Alpha Omega base with its icy cold feel and the apes being interned in cages and cruelly made to labour for an armed force bring forth images of Schindler’s List and The Great Escape. When we’re first introduced to The Colonel early on in the film, he looks like a monster out of a nightmare, and is as cold and ruthless as that description implies. He knows how to get inside Caesar’s head and rule his legion with an iron fist. The Colonel’s desire to build a wall using conscripted labour to keep out an invading force rings all too eerily in this particular political climate. With that being said, these references to historical and present day politics are naturally integrated and don’t come off as heavy-handed, but feel naturally woven into the fabric of not just this film but the wider franchise, which has always functioned as a mirror to society. If anything, the extra level of realism on every frontier makes it hit that much harder.

Even though the future of humanity looks bleak, there is still a thread of hope in the mute girl adopted by Maurice and the bravery, strength and degree of innocence she displays. She represents a possible new beginning and redemption for the human race. While this works for the film, when you consider where the ape society is and where the human survivors are in relation to each other in the 1968 classic, it certainly amplifies the pathos and tragedy of what is to come for both species. Then again, this has been a series built on downer endings, so you do know what to expect.

In contrast to the swath of truly lackluster or outright terrible sequels, prequels, reboots or attempts to start a cinematic universe, War for the Planet of the Apes is demonstrative proof that a film that happens to be both a prequel and a reboot can be an absolute work of genius. True, no film (especial;y blockbusters) is made equal, but the serious and intellectually honest approach of these new Apes films has effectively sealed their place in cinema history. Oh, and can someone just give Andy Serkis an Oscar already? That would be great.

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Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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