“I did not start this war. But I will finish it.”
At one point in War for the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves’ follow-up to his superb 2014 blockbuster Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we see a very apt graffiti scribbling on the wall of a military base. It says ‘Ape-ocalypse Now’. The film’s use of this, apart from stopping some lazy journalists going for an easy title in their reviews, tells you exactly what you need to know: this is no ordinary summer blockbuster. Unlike the usual bland and tedious tentpole flicks released at this time of year like Transformer’s 5 or The Mummy, War for the Planet of the Apes is much much more than just an action spectacle. It’s part character study, part concentration camp drama, and part examination on the effects of war and violence upon humanity. But y’know… with monkeys.
Unlike summer’s other Apocalypse Now aping monkey-blockbuster (the ludicrously enjoyable Kong: Skull Island) War for the Planet of the Apes doesn’t cheekily reference the 1979 film. Rather it’s in the film’s depictions of the psychological toll war can take on men and apes that the similarities appear. Like Willard in Apocalypse Now, Andy Serkis’ Caesar is the world weary soldier driven to take down a dangerous and deranged military leader whose soldiers follow him with almost religious fanaticism. War’s Colonel Kurtz equivalent is perfectly cast, with Brando-level crazy person Woody Harrelson playing the character, known simply here as ‘The Colonel’. The Ape-ocalypse Now stuff is merely a blueprint though, as the film carries through on the ‘War’ promised at the end of the previous series entry. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ human element, Jason Clarke’s Malcolm and Keri Russell’s Ellie, are nowhere to be seen as Caesar leads an ape army from high up in the San Francisco redwoods. He still wishes for the apes to be left alone but is forced into conflict by The Colonel and his men. The films opening scene sees one of these conflicts, as the Colonel’s men ambush the apes in the forest. It’s a fantastic and startlingly harrowing battle scene, with massive casualties on both sides. While it seems the apes are more or less the victors, Caesar’s mercy towards the few human survivors comes back to him in a tragic way. With vengeance the only thing on his mind, Caesar sets out across the state to hunt down and kill the Colonel.
The film is pretty bleak to say the least, even compared to Dawn – which killed all hope of apes and humans working together. The first half of War is almost a horseback road movie, with Caesar and a couple of fellow apes travelling through the country meeting a few strange characters along the way. I was getting a strong 3:10 to Yuma, or even Bone Tomahawk, vibe from it. There’s even a campfire scene; a staple of the road movie. They come across a few obstacles along the way including two of the franchises strangest and possibly most likeable characters. The first one is Nova, a young mute human girl played by Amiah Miller. Her quick friendship with franchise stalwart Maurice (Karin Konoval) is adorable and a scene between her and a dying ape will make even the most emotionless husk well-up. The second character the group crosses paths with is Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape, a monkey new to the franchise and to the way of life led by Caesar and his followers. Bad Ape isn’t a world weary soldier like the others, having evolved independently from Caesar’s group and spending much of the ape-ocalypse alone. The character is fantastic, wonderfully brought to life by Zahn’s performance. Bad Ape bring’s some levity to the film – just the sight of him wearing a gillet and bobble hat had the whole cinema in stitches.
The second half of the film goes in a completely different direction to the first, becoming a haunting concentration camp drama. It’s pretty brutal stuff too, with apes slowly starving, getting strung up on symbolic crosses, or getting whipped for refusing to build The Colonel’s Trumpian wall. The fact that a film about CGI apes can elicit more emotion out of this situation than even Schindler’s List is a credit to everyone involved. And as Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth stands over Płaszów concentration camp, so does Woody Harrelson’s Colonel. It’s a fantastic role and Harrelson gives it is all but unlike Gary Oldman’s Dreyfuss in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Harrelson’s Colonel isn’t someone you feel sorry for, at least not at first. Dreyfus was a good man pushed into fighting against the Apes, but you never really thought he was in the wrong. The Colonel doesn’t have the same morality- he is pretty much just evil, something Harrelson does brilliantly. The Colonel does have a sad backstory but whereas this humanised Dreyfus, for The Colonel it galvanises his near-religious fanaticism towards wiping out the apes.
“The fact that a film about CGI apes can elicit more emotion out of this situation than even Schindler’s List is a credit to everyone involved.”
The CGI used to bring Caesar and the other apes to life is mystifyingly brilliant, even by the usual WETA standards. The integration between CG elements and real elements are the best ever put to film. This isn’t just down to fantastic computer generated effects though, it’s also because of the director Matt Reeves commitment to taking a film about talking monkeys seriously. The films pacing is slow and deliberate, allowing for the audience to really live in this world. It seems a sad commentary on the state of modern film making but unlike a lot of big films these days, in War you actually tell what’s going on. Reeves doesn’t direct these blockbuster’s like a lot of directors would; you aren’t suffocated by quick cuts and illegible action scenes every 5 minutes. Which means when a gunshot does ring out it’s all the more shocking. It’s dark, visually and tonally, but not in the way where dark equals being unable to see what’s going on (*cough* Suicide Squad). Each take is perfectly staged and composed – you could could pause the film on almost any frame and you’d have a flawless shot or kick-ass new desktop wallpaper.
The cast are fantastic across the board but this is undoubtedly Andy Serkis’ film. As Caesar he’s not only the protagonist but the heart and soul of the trilogy. Even with sympathetic human characters like Malcolm and Ellie in Dawn, it’s Caesar we connect with most. With War we even go as far to side with the apes over the humans. There were multiple moments when I was cheering for the destruction on our own species – and a big reason for that is Serkis’ extraordinary performance. Underneath the superb special effects you can still see the subtleties and nuances of Serkis’ performance. Forget the special effect awards (which the film undoubtedly has in the bag anyway) Serkis deserves one of the big acting awards for his portrayal of one of the best realised protagonists in blockbuster cinema.
The bottom line: War for the Planet of the Apes is the one of the best movies of the year and completes what is perhaps the best film trilogy since The Lord of the Rings. The performances are fantastic across the board but it’s in the simian characters that the film really shines. Serkis’ portrayal of Caesar across the trilogy is nothing short of extraordinary and if this film is his curtain call then he couldn’t have gone out on a stronger note. Don’t be mislead by the ‘war’ in the title; War for the Planet of the Apes is a soulful character study in the guise of a summer sci-fi flick . There is enough spectacular action to call this a good blockbuster, but it’s the heart achingly real emotions and extraordinary depth of character that makes it a great film.