Review – War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Karin Konoval, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite
There is a solid case to be made that the rebooted Planet of the Apes series is the best blockbuster franchise of the 21st century. Other franchises might enjoy higher profiles and bigger box office (Dark Knight trilogy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Harry Potter series), but in terms of consistent high quality, with their combination of incredible technical achievement and effective storytelling, these Apes movies are hard to look past. After the Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the third instalment, Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, fittingly rounds out this most under-appreciated of blockbuster trilogies.
Two years after the events of Dawn, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the ape community are living in hiding in the woods. While he has defeated Koba, the rebellious ape who threatened to tear their community apart, Caesar has been left fighting the war with the humans that Koba started. The Simian Flu which wiped out most of the human population has evolved and is now robbing people of the power to speak (an important narrative development for fans of the original 1968 film), so those remaining uninfected humans have become both desperate and ruthless. The apes are preparing to abandon their hideout in the hope of settling in an uninhabited paradise beyond the desert when a foiled attempt to assassinate Caesar results in the deaths of some very close to him. With a personal score to settle, Caesar sets out with a small band of companions to confront the mysterious Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who leads the human army.
With War, writer-director Reeves goes one step further than either Rise or Dawn, having the confidence to tell us a story entirely from the point of view of the apes. For the first time in the trilogy we are not given a human character to play the role of viewer surrogate. Caesar is unambiguously our protagonist. It is his emotional journey we are on. As a result, you find yourself in the unusual position of siding against your own species in the war between apes and humans. The level of empathy with the simian characters War achieves is testament to how far the motion-capture technology, provided here by New Zealand’s Weta Digital, has advanced. It takes mere moments for you to forget that the apes that you are watching are computer generated, and as a result of that you can then forget that the characters you are engaging with are apes. The subtlety of emotion that is captured in their faces is astonishing. While Caesar gets the most screen time, supporting characters like his trusted advisor Maurice (Karin Konoval) and the tragic comic relief figure Bad Ape (Steve Zahn, bringing some much needed levity to what is otherwise a dark and serious tale without undermining the tone), right down to bit players and extras, are all just as impressively and uniquely realised.
War employs some very epic reference points, from Apocalypse Now to Spartacus and the Book of Exodus. We have the clash of two complex, charismatic leaders, Caesar and the Colonel. For Caesar, these are the events which will establish him as the Moses-like deliverer in ape lore. The Colonel is an almost mythical figure who strikes up a religious fervour in his followers. Woody Harrelson’s character is reminiscent of Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in both presentation and determination (it is a reference point which is hammered home to anyone who might have missed it by a piece of graffiti in his compound which reads ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’). For the ruthless Colonel peace is simply not an option. The future of mankind is at stake. The apes are physically superior and, thanks to the mutated virus, soon to be intellectually superior. Even if Caesar is willing to coexist, basic Darwinism suggests that the longterm outlook for mankind is not good.
Where War starts out as a relatively straight forward revenge tale, it evolves into something more complex and interesting. The title of the film promises a grand, climactic encounter, but the real struggle is more internal and there is a surprising lack of all out warring. Ultimately, the most significant conflict in the film isn’t that between Caesar and the Colonel, but that within Caesar himself. Caesar is haunted by what happened with Koba in Dawn. Now, blinded by rage and a thirst for vengeance, he has been made to experience Koba’s perspective, and must fight not to become him. It is another brilliant performance from the godfather of motion capture, Andy Serkis, and you can expect the usual round of questioning as to whether his work will or even can be recognised by the Academy. What Serkis, along with the team at Weta, have achieved across this trilogy is monumental with Caesar standing head and shoulders above any other motion capture performance we have seen.
The one real slight on this series, which continues to an even greater extent in this instalment, is a lack of substantial female characters. War gives few if any lines of dialogue to female characters whether human or ape, while also indulging in the well-worn trope of using the death of a woman to prompt action from the male protagonist. That blight aside though, War for the Planet of the Apes is an intelligent blockbuster which engrosses you with its ideas and characters as much as with its visual spectacle.
Review by Duncan McLean
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