If Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes turns out to be the reported final installment in the prequel-slash-reboot franchise, the series will be going out on its highest note. A thrilling, bold, and intelligent sort of summer blockbuster, Reeves’ second film in the franchise takes huge emotional and narrative risks with material that could have been played for camp value, but is instead embraced as a serious, thoughtful, conflicted reflection on human nature. War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t only the best film of its trilogy, but also an unlikely and refreshing candidate for one of the best films of the year.
It’s now fifteen years since the first film in this cycle of the Apes saga and two years since the violent conflict of the last film, which ended up pitting ape against ape in a war for control. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his band of followers have disappeared deep into the forests of the Pacific Northwest to preserve a sense of peace between apes and the scattered, frightened remains of the human race. The apes have agreed to remain peaceful provided that they’re allowed to claim the forest as their home. The tenuous peace is shattered when a military offensive led by the deranged Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) strikes mercilessly against Caesar’s family and followers. Wrestling with his pacifist stance and an animalistic desire for revenge against the Colonel, Caesar is forced to decide between diplomacy in the face of a totalitarian’s eradication of his people, selfish vengeance, or rallying his troops and going to war.
Reeves’ previous film in the franchise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, wrestled with a lot of similar issues and themes, but while that was more of an inventive action film with some hastily painted political and social overtones, War for the Planet of the Apes is full on food-for-thought. Nicely transitioning away from the relentless spectacle of Dawn, Reeves’ latest strikes as admirably austere and haunting in comparison. The bleakness and clarity of Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin’s images call to memory Vietnam, the American Civil War, and World War II at their direst low points. The world has become a cold nightmare for apes and humans alike, and unless the characters find themselves in an arid desert, it’s not a sunshiny sort of place. Smoke, snow, torrential rain, and mist fall in nature’s feeble attempt to reclaim itself from both warring parties. There’s a sense that while select groups of humans are trying to kill off the super-intelligent apes that they see as a threat, the earth would just as soon be done with all forms of life.
The chilly atmospheric nature of War for the Planet of the Apes lends itself nicely to Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback’s somber story. While audiences will still find Reeves’ large scale action set-pieces to be gorgeously mounted and rousing and Caesar as a hero worth rooting for, this is resoundingly not a feel good summer movie. This isn’t a film made for kids or immature teenagers looking for a cool way to kill two hours watching apes battling humans, regardless of what the film’s marketing suggests. This is a blockbuster tentpole for thinking adults and a film that revolves around potent, wrenching internal and external conflicts, using the events of the decent, if unexceptional previous film to excellent effect in this effort.
After having done things he said he wouldn’t do to protect his people, Caesar once again finds himself torn between violence and peace. The memory of militaristic ape Koba (Toby Kebbell, returning for some potent, nightmarish visions) haunts Caesar, but the desire to strike back against a human race that’s enslaving, murdering, and repressing his fellow apes proves to be all consuming. Much like today’s political discussions, there’s no longer a middle ground for many with Caesar or the Colonel’s mentality; it’s all in or ignore everything. This is the mentality that has led to every war throughout history, so those same extremes naturally lead to the titular battle that climaxes Reeves’ film.
The acting talent of Andy Serkis as Caesar can no longer be ignored by critics or awards bodies. Serkis’ Caesar might have been created through the use of motion capture – with the WETA effects team continuing to outdo themselves – but no amount of computer manipulation could have created a performance as emotional and, yes, human as what the actor delivers here. In his third outing as the main character, Serkis has to run through a range of emotions and the frustrations of Caesar are palpable and relatable.
Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) builds the entirety of War for the Planet of the Apes’ storyline around not only human themes, but around Serkis’ ability to convey the humanity at the heart of an ape. In some respects, this is a story of a father and husband pushed too far or a Moses-like leader trying desperately to free his people, but War for the Planet of the Apes is also a wrenching tale of a main character trying not to fall apart under extreme circumstances and severe emotional trauma. Serkis’ work is delicate, bracing, and certainly award worthy. Anyone still complaining that motion capture animation requires no acting chops will be silenced once and for all by Serkis’ turn here.
As Caesar’s villainous counterpart, Harrelson also delivers one of his best performances, despite having considerably less screen time than one might expect from the film’s primary human role. Part Colonel Kurtz, part Hitler, part Donald Trump, Harrelson’s character doesn’t get a proper introduction until almost seventy minutes into the film, with Reeves wisely spending plenty of time amongst the confused and frightened apes. When Harrelson finally does get a chance to show the depths of his madness and evil, he finally gives Caesar the cold-blooded, deadly serious human counterpart the franchise has been lacking. The film’s best scene is actually something that is deathly in most films: a lengthy moment of exposition where the Colonel explains his evil plans to a helpless Caesar and the two actors are allowed to go dramatically toe-to-toe. Harrelson’s Colonel seems like a freedom fighter, but his motivations will turn out to be not only self-serving, but the by-product of his creating a cult-of-personality around himself. If that isn’t a dangerously prescient post-modern message, I don’t know what is.
Not every aspect of War for the Planet of the Apes works as well as it could, and there are a few elements that suggest some studio tinkering to make things a bit less dour and serious. The inclusion of Steve Zahn as a former zoo animal who can verbalize in ways similar to Caesar smacks of a desperate need for any sort of comedic relief or warmth to distract from the darkness. The addition of a small, mute human child to Caesar’s tribe does tie into a major plot point about the Simian Flu mutating once again, but it doesn’t add much else except another human face. These characters often feel like filler, but at least they’re pleasant enough to spend some time around.
To give readers a final understanding of just how dark the tone of War for the Planet of the Apes manages to be, I should note that almost the entire second half of the film takes place with our heroes confined to an internment/labour camp while their leader is forced to watch the suffering of his people. One might balk at calling apes people, but the way Reeves and company have framed their story, it’s hard to see them anymore as creatures. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, and in the wrong hands such a decision could have been in extremely poor taste, but Reeves doesn’t back down from his serious approach to blockbuster filmmaking. This is a major studio franchise film that dares to be about something greater than cheap thrills and has the courage of its own convictions to follow through on some lofty ideas without being cynical or treating the viewer like a child. Most franchises that reach their third installment use it as a reason to coast along on previously established laurels. Reeves and company have found away to reverse this trend and make one of the most ambitious films of the year.
War for the Planet of the Apes opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, July 14, 2017.
Check out the trailer for War for the Planet of the Apes: