It should be said that 2017 has done very well with its franchise blockbusters. This year has given us, among other things, a fierce but fond farewell to an angry mutant with claws, a giant monkey in the backdrop of Apocalypse Now, and resolved daddy issues set to Fleetwood Mac in space. Even when it gave moderately-impressive efforts to the world’s most famous female superhero and everyone’s favorite nerdy superhero (for the SIXTH TIME), it was still nice to see Hollywood dropping the ball less than last year. Amongst the cavalcade of characters that have thrived this year, who would’ve guessed one of them would be those damn dirty apes?
War for the Planet of the Apes is the third installment in the rebooted Apes franchise, seeing the world ravaged from a virus that has killed off most of the human population and made the primate species hyper-intelligent. With the human race beginning to reemerge, the ape population (or at least the one in the woods of Vancouver) is constantly fighting with a rogue military outfit looking to make the gun-toting tribe of primates extinct. Led by the stern but compassionate Caesar (Andy Serkis), the apes plan to leave the woods and find a new home for themselves away from the war with the humans. Unfortunately the military outfit and its conniving leader, known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), is planning a final assault on the apes. With the help of his ape comrade, a straggling ape (Steven Zahn), and a mute abandoned girl (Amiah Miller), Caesar races to The Colonel’s outpost to make a last stand for his kind.
While the rebooted trilogy started with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes under director Rupert Wyatt, the new Apes franchise thrived with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes under director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In). Reeves expanded the bleak universe of the Apes movies to be able to build the characters of the apes while also using exceptional motion-capture technology to showcase immersive action. On top of building a narrative comparing the behaviors of apes and humans (SPOILERS: we’re not that much better), he also managed to make a thrilling action movie. In War for the Planet of the Apes, Reeves doubles down on the dour atmosphere and environment by setting most of the movie in the frozen, desolate Canadian border. He and co-writer Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, The Wolverine) make the focus entirely on the journey of Caesar from reluctant leader to vengeful father to true savior. The screenplay seems to put Caesar as a vessel for the audience more than a character, coldly judging the faults of the war while trying hard not to devolve into the primitive species the humans think of him and his kind. He sees his ape brethren mounted as war trophies, imprisoned and turned to slave labor, but Caesar tries desperately to hold onto his soul. It truly feels like a fitting completion to his story arc (as no plans for future Apes movies are in the cards at the moment) as he battles the darkest of days. The detail in the building of this movie’s universe is first-rate with imagery that’s reminiscent of Westerns, war dramas, dystopian sci-fi, and hardened action.
That doesn’t mean Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin (Midnight Express, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) turn the color down or sour the imagery, as there are some truly gorgeous shots of the first ape vs. human battle in the forests and the apes trekking through the snow that recalls the gorgeous aerial shots of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. War for the Planet feels very much like a sweeping war epic, a cross between Spartacus and The Thin Red Line with action scenes that let the audience see every possible element clearly. Whether it’s the apes riding horses in the snow, throwing spears, or simply lunging for attack, the audience see it set up with tension and executed with grace, plus Michael Giacchino’s grand score doesn’t hurt. It’s all the more surprising that the action is actually minimal for a nearly two-and-a-half hour summer action movie. Aside from the breathless opening assault in the forest and the explosive climax, most of the movie is moved along by the journey of Caesar’s redemption.
It’s all motivated by character, which is all the more impressive considering those characters are made partly from computers. To the credit of the special effects team, the apes have never looked more real. Perhaps Reeves planned out so many close up shots of the apes for audience to applaud the team that detailed every inch of the digital apes down to their fur, highlighting legitimate emotions coming from the actors. The slightest shift of skin on the face of the apes looks all to real. Whether human or ape, the acting has a strong supporting cast. The motion-capture actors, including Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, and Michael Adamthwaite have great chemistry with each other and bring out genuine emotion with mere sign language. Even longtime clown Steve Zahn, playing a new monkey called Bad Ape, manages to bring the slightest touch of levity to the film (even if he overstays his welcome in the final act). Woody Harrelson brings the intensity as the villain with a chip on his shoulder. His dynamic with Caesar is less hero vs. villain and more cat-and-mouse, a hunter and his prey. Harrelson keeps his menace understated with a hint of passion, a man who truly believes he’s the second coming of the human race. But the heart and soul of this movie and the two proceeding it is Andy Serkis, fully-formed and more human than ever in his third turn as Caesar. This is not simply a role that Serkis is sliding into, but a life that he inhabits by picking up the weight of the previous two films and wearing it on his slouched sleeves. Caesar spends most of the movie looking haggard, beat-down, and on the brink of completely falling apart. But Caesar still lunges to the front lines and Serkis throws himself into every scene. It feels moot at this point to say that Serkis deserves a certain golden statue for his performance, but he should receive as many commendations as possible.
War for the Planet of the Apes is blockbuster movie-making done with a passion, more about character development than car crashes. Even with the extremely dour atmosphere, the movie has an incredibly powerful feeling with it. Matt Reeves has not made a summer blockbuster but more composed a symphony of action and emotion that syncs up when other movies have those elements clash. The entire Apes franchise has been so fascinating to watch evolve and mature into something with such prestige that if this is Caesar’s final curtain call, it’s hard not to applaud it.