Starring: Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings), Woody Harrelson (The Hunger Games), Steve Zahn (Out of Sight), Amiah Miller (Lights Out)
Director: Matt Reeves (Cloverfield)
Writers: Mark Bomback (The Wolverine) & Matt Reeves
Runtime: 2 hours 20 minutes
Release Date: 11 July (UK), 14 July (US)
I don’t think anyone would have thought even ten years ago that one of the best hard sci-fi series in recent history would be a series of prequels to Planet of the Apes, but both Rise and Dawn brought great character introspection and socio-political commentary to the summer blockbuster to make something truly special. Now we have reached the third instalment, at which point franchises usually tremble if not outright collapse. Dawn set in motion what promised to be an all-out war and, whilst War for the Planet of the Apes’ title may be somewhat misleading, the film itself is anything but a letdown.
Resuming the story two years after the events of Dawn, War continues on the themes of the ape vs. human conflict established by its predecessor and takes it in new directions. What’s most surprising about the film is that it isn’t the grand action spectacle the marketing has made it out to be. The film is bookended by some great action sequences, but a solid chunk of the film is mostly character-focused. That may be a disappointment to some, but this franchise was never about the action to begin with. It’s about the motivations and politics behind it, and War develops those ideas in tragic but inevitable ways; if you’ve seen the 1968 film, you know this can’t all end well. But even without action, the threat never falls too far away and the story is expertly paced to allow for respites of character development amongst the action beats. What the film should be most applauded for is its masterful use of visual storytelling. There are long stretches where not a word is spoken, with the third act being almost completely bereft of dialogue, but the story is communicated so well through the apes’ body language and the composition of the filmmaking that nothing should go over your head. By the film’s conclusion, War feels like a well-earned conclusion to a trilogy. The door is certainly left open for more, but the story that started in Rise feels definitively ended here.
Does it even need to be said that Andy Serkis gives a great performance? He was already the pinnacle of performance capture acting when the series began, and his portrayal of Caesar has only continued to evolve into arguably the most nuanced character of his career. Caesar has grown darker with each instalment as his optimism for the future of his people and the humans has dwindled, and here he is nearly pushed over the edge. But even at his most dire moment, Caesar always remains sympathetic and you root for him throughout. Sometimes those noble qualities are pushed a little too far with some on the nose biblical allegories, but it never becomes so cloying that you lose empathy for him. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Woody Harrelson’s haunting portrayal of The Colonel. He’s a man who comes across as extremely villainous on the surface, which is only exacerbated by the correlations the film makes between his warmongering followers and certain contemporary radical groups, but there’s humanity to his character. In a fantastic scene between him and Caesar, you quickly understand what this man has been through and why he commits the horrible acts he does. It’s a frightening performance, but one that makes you feel sorry for him up until the end. Serkis and Harrelson ultimately own the film, but the supporting players all do their jobs well, especially Caesar’s fellow mo-cap apes. Steve Zahn is a surprising bit of fun as Bad Ape, bringing comic relief to a morose film without ever breaking the tone, and Amiah Miller is a revelation as the mute young girl Nova.
The ever-evolving technology of visual effects has not only allowed us to take more and more of the restrictions of our cinematic imagination away, but it makes them even more realistic too. The effects in Rise were already near perfect, and now in War you’ll never even question their believability. These CG characters often get right up to the lens and there’s never a moment where their skin, their hair or even their eyes looks anything but genuine. This is even further impressive given the wide variety of environments they find themselves in; the way their bodies react to rain or snow is practically photo-realistic. But even beyond the impeccable effects work, the technical expertise here is all-around fantastic. The cinematography captures the bleak majesty of this slowly dying world, the designs of everything ape and human feels distinctive and summarizes their characters perfectly, and Michael Giacchino’s score is suitably grand and verbose.
War for the Planet of the Apes stands as quite possibly the best entry in the Caesar series, but also as one of the best conclusions to a trilogy in recent memory. It puts a cap on the themes that have driven this story since the beginning whilst also taking them to original places. It’s a film that doesn’t necessarily deliver on what you expect from of a summer blockbuster, but what it does give you is of far greater substance and entertainment that most of its peers would even attempt. This franchise will probably find a way to continue, but when it does I’m excited to see what new path it can forge for itself.
FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10