Let’s not split hairs – though with the sublime mane work the necromancers at WETA have accomplished here, splitting hairs is definitely within the realm of possibilities – War for the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable achievement on nearly any rubric. A narratively pulsating, emotionally turbulent survival epic complete with near-miraculous FX work and sumptuous production design, War sets itself so far apart from the average summer blockbuster that it risks being undefinable. As bleak as anything I’ve personally witnessed in a PG-13 effects-driven escape movie about apes, War for the Planet of the Apes is the Joseph Conrad-penned Schindler’s List of Apes movies. Dealing in genocide, slavery, exodus and death, War also finds room among its Old Testament adversity for growth, heroism and hope to take root. Perfectly culminating Caesar’s prequel trilogy and tying into the 1968 Charlton Heston-led original, War is everything fans of the franchise could hope for and more. And boy is it a breathtaking journey to be a part of.
The war from which director Matt Reeves’ second sequel borrows its title sees the super-evolved apes and an increasingly unstable mankind – on the brink of extinction, acting like feral beasts backed into a wall – bare teeth and head to battle. But the more important war, the one writers Mark Bomback and Reeves are most interested in, is that waged inside of Caesar himself. Because War is first and foremost a character study, a fierce and hold-steady deconstruction of a simian loaded with human characteristics, one who we’ve come to know and care for over the course of three extraordinary films, Reeves and company put as much care into balancing the emotional turbulence stirring inside Caesar as they do to seamlessly creating his ape-pearance.
Placing its most interesting character, ape savior Caesar, into the crosshairs, Reeves has figured out the franchises’ most flattering angle. There’s no question that the human characters in this Apes trilogy have always been its least interesting component and War rectifies this by removing the Francos and the Clarkes from the equation and investing even more screen time in Caesar’s inner workings. With more Caesar, Reeves is able to track this character from infancy to infamy, thoughtfully deconstructing what has motivated him in the past and what will motivate him going forward one perfectly rendered ape hair at a time.
As Caesar, Andy Serkis delivers in ways that make the Academy’s refusal to acknowledge his work all the more embarrassing. He is outstanding to the point where hyperbole cannot accurately define precisely how good he is. Serkis’ is a performance that speaks volumes with a tilt of the head or the slightest of glances. His glowering is icy cold. His reluctance towards leadership and ultimate hubris reveal themselves in subtle but internally consistent and poignant ways. Props to Reeves for fixing his camera on Serkis’ steely countenance so steadily, tracking its most subtle of shifts and allowing character to drive the action and not vice-versa.
After trying and failing to broker peace with the increasingly violent human race, Caesar comes to bear a new burden in War. That burden is vengeance and its cost is hefty. After a bloody encounter with one of the last remaining bastions of humanity, a militarized tangle of emotionless savages doing all they can to exterminate that which has advanced beyond them, Caesar’s thirst for revenge motivates him to leave behind his simian brethren and hunt down the perpetrator who has taken so much from him.
Joined by loyal brother-in-arms Rocket, gorilla strongman Luca and the compassionate orangutan Maurice, Caesar embarks on a make-or-break campaign to the heart of darkness, bringing him to a brutal crossroads that will define his legacy. Visions of Dawn antagonist Koba (Toby Kebbell) and the emergence of a ruthless Army colonel (played to lip-smacking perfection by Woody Harrelson and lit by crack cinematographer Michael Seresin to invoke Brando’s imposing Colonel Kurtz) serve to tease out Caesar’s dark side and how far he is willing to go and what he is willing to loose along the way. Sure Koba and the Colonel are there to steer him, but both are really window dressings to Caesar’s internal fight for his “humanity”. On the purely technical side, War for the Planet of the Apes contains the most mind-boggling motion capture creations put to screen. Caesar and his troops march beyond uncanny valley into such creepily realistic territory that one’s cognitive dissonance kicks you in the back of your seat every once in a while, reminding you that these are not indeed actually apes acting. Michael Giacchino’s score is a guiding light, oscillating between hearty epic marches and thoughtful tinkerings. His musical flourishes always amplify the artistry onscreen rather than makeup for it and the pairing of score and film is pitch perfect in nearly every sense. Speaking of technical accomplishments, War for the Planet of the Apes manages to turn funnyman Steve Zahn into its most endearing new character, a “bad ape” who dons a vintage ski jacket. War may not be 2017’s first ape movie to employ unlikely an comedian (John C. Reilly, Kong) but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that Zahn is an even riskier get than the reliably funny Reilly.
Just this week, Warner Brothers made waves for wanting to distance themselves for “auteur filmmakers”, i.e. directors with vision, and Matt Reeves makes an awesome case for why that is just about the dumbest idea this side of smell-o-vision. It is Reeves and Reeves alone that makes this venture so fiercely original and yet so perfectly coiled into the franchise’s arc. War for the Planet of the Apes takes its cues from a bygone ilk of movies, the explosively auteur era of the 1970s where filmmaking turned from profession to art form. Reeves masterfully guides the story, making not-so-subtle references to snow-capped spaghetti westerns, John Wayne revenge exploits like The Searchers and Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal exploration of the mental price of war, Apocalypse Now, but tips of the hat or no, this is distinctly his story. Contrast this with the filmmaking-by-boardroom we’ve seen with the influx of “expanded universe” clunkers and it couldn’t be more clear that studios need to increasingly seek out auteurs if they want their products to succeed. If the domestic failure of Transformers 5 proved anything, it’s that audiences are sick and tired of being treated like morons and War has the decency to assume its audience’s emotional and intellectual intelligence and then some and left the feeding-spoon at home.
Sadly, War for the Planet of the Apes represents a caliber of blockbuster that is rarely constructed in the modern era. Harkening back to an age where big money did not equate to dumbed-down, internationally-minded storytelling; where it was ok if blockbusters had something of substance to say; where men could wander the desert in search of meaning and vengeance and the two became irreparably tangled; where war epics questioned the maddening bug of war rather than bathe in its tracer-fire glory. Matt Reeves does just that; he basks in emotional complexity where his peers avoid it outright; he invests resources in character development over busied action spectacle. In short, he challenges normative assumptions of what a blockbuster can be and in doing so makes a blockbuster that will exist as a standard bearer for what the genre can be. Indeed, he has raised the bar.
CONCLUSION: A masterclass in blockbuster filmmaking, ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is that improbably rare summer movie that forces you to think, feel and interact with it on the same level as the medium’s best dramas. Thoughtful, contemplative and deeply felt, Matt Reeve’s threequel marries peerless technological feats with sumptuous storytelling while Andy Serkis is sublime as king of kongs Caesar. A perfectly rendered capstone, ‘War’ closes out the Apes prequel series in extraordinary fashion, qualifying it as the best trilogy of the 21st century.