Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Amiah Miller
When you think about it, the Planet of the Apes prequel franchise is sort of an anomaly when in context in this modern age of blockbusters. I think we can all agree that the art of making a quality summer action flick is dwindling by the year, with every movie dumbing down plots, concepts, originality, and themes for bombastic action and an overload of visual effects.
Meanwhile, these Apes prequels, produced on large-scale budgets and distributed by 20th Century Fox, seem to favor politics, quiet character drama, and subtlety more than action. It’s rare that we see films made on such a large scale that feel so intimate, thoughtful, and human. It’s amazing that films like these are even getting made when considering the over-saturated blockbuster climate.
Nonetheless, the Apes films come around once every few years to remind us that artistry and intelligence is still possible to incorporate into your mid-summer action blockbuster. And the story that began with 2011’s surprisingly great Rise of the Planet of the Apes now ends with War, set in the near future in a world where factions of human survivors and hyper-intelligent apes struggle to coexist. When the leader of a rogue military group (Woody Harrelson) leaves those close to ape revolutionary Caesar (Andy Serkis) dead, Caesar sets out on a quest for personal vengeance that could ignite a war between both sides.
Leave it to a movie about talking apes riding on horseback firing machine guns to be the most intelligent and somber blockbuster you’ll see all summer. As with the previous two films, and particularly the preceding Dawn, politics and ideology takes front and center here. So much so, that the action takes a backseat for the vast majority of the movie. There are but two or three major action sequences in this 2 hour and 20 minute film, and even then, they’re directed with a sense of bleakness and despair.
This is a sobering, harrowing look at human behavior, loss, and revenge. It examines the qualities a leader should have and how personal feelings can complicate them. It shows how emotional turmoil can get in the way of your goals and the greater good.
There is barely a shred of positivity to be found in this film. From the opening scene, in which we see a group of human soldiers execute a devastating attack on the apes secluded stronghold, the film sets a tone of hopelessness, anguish, and desperation that doesn’t let up until the very, very last scene.
In fact, this film is so bleak, and so emotionally-draining, that the one form of levity, a character named “Bad Ape” played by Steve Zahn, is the film’s only major weakness. Zahn performs well and his jokes are used in moderation, but even so, every time he’s played for laughs, it clashes with the film’s starkly somber tone.
The world that the story inhabits has long since been reclaimed by nature. There’s hardly a trace of human civilization left over. The film’s earthy color palette and cinematography reflects an idea that mankind, no matter how resilient and overconfident, is ultimately powerless against nature.
And even though this has always been a strong focus of the praise this series has received thus far, a review for this movie wouldn’t be complete without recognizing the truly mesmerizing visual effects. These apes are utterly real. There is not a single shot, or a single effect, that looks unconvincing, even in the slightest. Every strand of fur, every facial cue and expression, and every body movement is shockingly lifelike. This is a masterwork of visual effects artistry that sets a new standard for films of this kind.
Of course, some of the credit does have to go to the actors who help bring their characters to life. At this point in the overarching story, the apes retain more humanity than the actual humans do, and that’s apparent through both their behavior and intelligence. Andy Serkis is an absolute revelation every time he dons a motion capture suit, and this movie is no exception. Caesar is taken to the absolute lowest of lows in this film. He is stripped of nearly everything that made him the great leader he once was, and at times, is practically reduced to the animal that he used to be.
Serkis is able to convey this torment and anger so accurately and with such raw power, even behind all of the special effects. Caesar has never felt like a CGI creation; he’s always felt like a living, breathing, and above all, complex character. I’m consistently amazed at how fully-realized and layered this fictional, CG ape is, and this film explores him in nuanced, fascinating ways.
Take note, Academy. This is your last chance to nominate this actor for his performance in these films. Don’t let this opportunity go to waste.
Woody Harrelson isn’t in the film as much as you might expect, but when he is, he absolutely dominates the screen. It certainly helps that him and his army heavily utilized as symbols of white supremacy and neo-Nazism, but there are also layers behind his character. His motivations aren’t all that dissimilar with that of Caesar’s, and it makes the conflict all the more riveting because of it.
Even Karen Konoval and Terry Notary get more to do this time around. However, despite her being a key point in the film’s marketing, and despite her giving a great performance, Amiah Miller’s character, a girl who finds herself along for the ride with Caesar and his crew, is somewhat pointless. While her growing relationship with the apes is occasionally touching, she doesn’t do much of anything to serve the plot, aside from one scene in the third act between her and Caesar.
Not enough can be said about Matt Reeves’ direction. It’s so thoughtful, inspired, and strays far, far away from traditional Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. His stunning use of focus brings out the beauty in this barren post-apocalyptic world. And best of all, the way he paces his scenes are methodical and restrained. His vision of this story and this world is the perfect antidote to the over-the-top, abrasive blockbusters we’re used to seeing these days. The action is sparse, and when it happens, it leaves behind deadly-serious repercussions for the characters.
Yes, there is a battle involving humans and apes that spans about 15 minutes during the third act, and even then, Reeves still makes sure to keep the focus on the characters and the drama between them. It isn’t a hollow spectacle; it serves a monumental purpose.
Caesar’s story is a spectacular one, and this film’s final scene allows you to reflect on that, as it provides this trilogy with not only its a satisfying and complete resolution, but the best entry into this franchise to date.
The Verdict: War for the Planet of the Apes is a stunning, harrowing, and bleak conclusion to Hollywood’s most intelligent and understated action franchise. Every frame is gorgeous, every performance is riveting, and every scene is important. It’s a conclusion both devastating and hopeful, and it’s undoubtedly one of the year’s very best blockbusters.