War for the Planet of the Apes chronicles more than the struggle for species supremacy. This is the latest film in Fox’s popular franchise depicting a world where apes evolved from men. It gives us an internal war, one which rages within our hero, the ape Caesar. In War, we see a very personal loss, plus the ravages of constant battle, take its toll on the weary leader who was willing to go to great lengths for peace. The brutality that he and his kind face sparks a descent into rage and a thirst for vengeance in Caesar that is both uncharacteristic, yet completely understandable. This film is the culmination of a meticulously crafted character arc; it’s at once mournful and dark, but rich and satisfying. One near fatal tonal misstep aside, every aspect of filmmaking comes together in War to conclude the tragedy of Caesar in grand style.
After a rather clumsy on-screen text prologue that summarizes the first two films in the trilogy, we join Caesar and his band of apes in Muir Woods National Monument. It’s a beautiful bit of irony that our simian heroes have taken refuge from their human foes in an area that was created and protected by one of the greatest examples of human altruism and conservation. Those positive traits, along with things like compassion and love, can still be found in the humans of the first two Apes pictures. James Franco’s Will Rodman in Rise, as well as Jason Clarke’s Malcom and Keri Russell’s Ellie in Dawn demonstrate a strong inclination to listen to the better angels of our nature, even if those around them become less willing to do so.
In War, the human inclination toward peace and compassion is virtually nonexistent. This horrifying lack of empathy is personified in The Colonel, the leader of a paramilitary force called Alpha-Omega. The Colonel’s zeal for wiping out the apes at any cost has led to his own ouster from the broader U.S. military chain of command. It’s his raid on Caesar’s peaceful community, one that ends tragically for members of Caesar’s own family, that sends the ape leader into a spiral of hate and on a mission for revenge.
The actor has said in interviews that he’s not channeling Marlon Brando’s legendary performance from Apocalypse Now, instead it just inspired him. It’s a fine line of distinction, but an accurate one. It’s hard to miss the connection, considering one scene in particular. The Colonel stands on a balcony, shaving his head as he looks out over his troops, who are singing a patriotic anthem to their fearless leader. The one key element that gives credence to Harrelson’s parsing of terms is in the writing of the character. Unlike Kurtz, The Colonel isn’t mad. He’s far from it. That is, in fact, what makes him so terrifying.
Determined to ensure the human species wins the war, he forces his ape POWs into slave labor. They are building a wall to fortify his troops against the US military, who are coming to relieve him of his command. I have a feeling that nefarious leaders trying to build a wall will be a prevalent theme in art for the foreseeable future.
The Colonel treats his captives with brutal deprivation, refusing to give them food or water until they finish their work. This desperate situation is made even more bleak considering some apes are actually helping The Colonel with his plans. Those still loyal to Koba, who fought with Caesar for control of ape leadership in Dawn, have turned traitor to Caesar, and allied with humans.
Director Matt Reeves and his creative team have taken a sci-fi story about apes battling humans for control of the planet and evoked everything from WWII concentration camps to the madness of Vietnam. It’s puzzling, then, why Reeves and his cowriter, Mark Bomback, decided to employ a bit of comic relief that is so ill-conceived it threatens to derail the entire movie. During Caesar’s hunt for revenge, he and his companions – the orangutan Maurice, the gorilla Luca, and the chimpanzee Rocket – come upon Bad Ape. This chimp was exposed to the Simian Flu, which makes apes smarter and is deadly to humans, while living at a zoo. Bad Ape’s tale of his keepers mistreating him, and the hard life he’s lived since escaping the zoo are moving.
Less so are the bits of comedy Bad Ape supplies. These moments clash with the serious tone that Reeves has established. From the silly clothes he wears, to his catchphrase-like exclamation of “OH NO!” whenever he has to do something that frightens him, Bad Ape treads close to Jar Jar Binks territory. Steve Zahn supplies the voice and motion capture performance for Bad Ape, and almost everything the character says and does feels like it belongs in a different movie.
It’s a shame, because the visual effects of the Bad Ape character, along with every other ape in War, are astonishing. I remember being flabbergasted in 2011 by a 15-second clip of Caesar that went viral online in anticipation of Rise’s release. The subtle motion of Caesar moving his eyes from side to side looked so real. The effects got even better in 2014 with Dawn. The film opens and closes on an extreme close-up of Caesar’s face, so unbelievably expressive, life-like, and downright human.
In War, the infamous uncanny valley effect is practically gone. The work to bring these creatures to life is the perfect marriage between human performance and computer artistry. The inimitable Andy Serkis, a pioneer and master in the art of motion capture acting, gives Caesar a soul. But don’t make the mistake in thinking it’s only what he does with his body and face that make Caesar such a strong presence on the screen. Serkis’ voice work is phenomenal. His tortured, anguished vocalizations make it easy to empathize with Caesar. We care more for these apes than for any human, especially in War, and that’s a marvel. This movie is a testament to the acting abilities of the performers, as well as to how far the magic of cinema has come in its relatively short 120-year history.
Why it got 4 stars:
- War for the Planet of the Apes (and this trilogy as a whole) is an excellent example of smart summer blockbuster movie making. It has plenty of crowd-pleasing moments, while also remaining true to its core. It allows things to come to a close in a way that honors the story. The comic relief is woefully out of place, but the evocative tone throughout the rest of War is sublime.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I want to give some love to a filmmaking craft that is chronically under appreciated. Production Designer James Chinlund (who worked on both Dawn and War) creates a world so real, so lived-in, with both of these movies. He put an enormous amount of detail into every shot, and it shows.
- One of my favorite composers was on duty for both Dawn and War, as well. Michael Giacchino delivered beautiful scores for both films. In Dawn, he riffed on the original 60s/70s feel of the first Apes series to wonderful effect. He didn't do that as much with War, but the music here is still gorgeous.
- I might as well rank these three films. Dawn edges out War, but just barely. Rise, while good, and very entertaining, doesn't come close to matching the intensity or dramatic tension of the latter two movies.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
Next week, I'm going to look at a film where Casey Affleck spends 90% of his on-screen time under a bed sheet. The movie is A Ghost Story, directed by Dallas-based filmmaker David Lowery, who directed Affleck in Ain't Them Bodies Saints. It stars Affleck, as well as Saints costar Rooney Mara.