Apes. Continue. Strong. Nearly 50 years after Charlton Heston cursed humanity on a beach, the Planet of the Apes franchise is still going strong. Those original five films managed to combine a maddening sci-fi twist with biting social commentary. They covered everything from race to religious idolatry to celebrity culture. Then after that Tim Burton trainwreck, Rise of the Planet of the Apes managed to surprise the hell out of everyone by giving us a sleek modern sheen and respect for the emotional & intellectual roots of the series. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes only increased this further, managing to develop the world and main lead Caesar (Andy Serkis) with grounded authenticity. Now War for the Planet of the Apes has arrived, giving us the next chapter in how Caesar and his fellow monkey men fighting to live. There’s a lot of trepidation going into this third entry, given how often trilogies burn out in their third entry. Yet, it’s safe to say that War isn’t a hurling piece of simian feces. Far from it, in fact.
Our journey starts a few years after Dawn. Caesar and his fellow apes are fighting against a human military faction known as Alpha Omega. Alpha Omega is a force to be reckoned with, given their ranks include converted intelligent apes. After a major battle, Caesar reunites with his son Blue Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones), who brings news of a far off valley where the apes can relocate. Caesar decides to organize a mass exodus to this promised land. However, the night before their trip, Alpha Omega raids the ape compound in a waterfall. This leads to the Alpha leader The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) assassinating Blue Eyes (thinking he’s Caesar) and Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer). Filled with rage, Caesar sends his youngest child Cornelius off with the others while setting his sights on revenge against The Colonel. Caesar’s closest confidants Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary) accompany Caesar, hoping to get their leader back home. As the journey to the California border, they come across a mute young human girl (Amiah Miller), a slow witted talking ape (Steve Zahn) and a new development in the Simian Flu virus that could very well end the War as they know it.
With a franchise entry that features War in the title, one would expect spectacle. And there definitely is some spectacle feature here, mainly during the climax. There are explosions, some gunplay. However, unlike so many of the forgettable summer turns we’ve seen over the past few months, War gradually builds up to that type of action. Before the climax, most of the confrontations are grounded and disturbing in a way that feels less like Pirates of the Caribbean and more like The Road. We get the sense that these apes are truly fighting for survival as they scrounge around. Really, the true spectacle on display is the effects work used to make these apes seem real. Rise and Dawn impressed for their respective years, but War truly advances the technology of motion capture. These apes are just out of the uncanny valley, allowing us to sympathize and forget that they’re digital effects. It’s the type of CG that really translates to true movie magic. A close up on Maurice’s face that shows every hair is far more memorable and stunning than any robot battle in a Transformers film. Mainly because the effect is used to craft the character rather than distract from the lack of it. Sure, it’s not the practical face attachments that John Chambers made iconic. Yet, it feels like the next level extension of what Chambers aimed and succeeded at.
Of course, WETA Workshop’s work here isn’t the only element that brings these simians to life. The actors wearing motion capture leotards are just as vital. Obviously, Andy Serkis continues to own this technique as he has since we first saw his physique as Gollum in The Two Towers. Every subtle facial tic or arm movement reveals more about the puzzle of Caesar and the individual scene at play. We get why Caesar is the leader of this ape tribe from merely a few nods. Yet, we’re also seeing more vulnerability than ever before in Caesar, as he loses a world he’s built all his own with his family and haunted by his treatment of the villainous ape Koba in Dawn. As with every year he delivers one of these performances, Serkis’ work in War is Oscar caliber material that probably won’t get a nom due to a variety of factors. Don’t worry; he’ll get an honorary one when he retires as a gimmie.
That being said, War makes excellent use of the various supporting players in this arsenal, more so than Rise or Dawn. Karin Konoval as Maurice shines brightest in her scenes with Amiah Miller, allowing us to gain so much empathy as this ape embraces a member of the enemy tribe like a surrogate daughter. Terry Notary – who helped raise Kong Skull Island above mediocrity as that titular ape – allows Rocket to live and breath as Caesar’s second in command, showing a sense of brotherly history that seems like second nature. Aleks Paunovic as the defecting Albino ape Winter manages to give so many sides of remorse with such limited screen time. All of those are especially impressive given both use sign language as their primary form of communication. Still, that doesn’t discount those who do speak, like Ty Olsson as the human sympathizing ape Red or Steve Zahn’s endearingly silly Bad Ape. The latter in particular balances a very tight rope. Zahn could have easily gone into Jar Jar Binks territory, but manages to give us just enough of much needed comedic relief to deal with the heft of this material.
Much of that emotional intensity for these various ape characters in War comes from the psychological mirroring of The Colonel on Caesar. Both are generals in this war, with similar motivations of survival. Yet, Colonel is the corruption of what Caesar stands for. Woody Harrelson could easily go full on Colonel Kurtz impression and be done with it, but there’s a tact to his character. A cruel tact admittedly, but every whipping or gun to the forehead shows off a strategy and motivation firmly planted in the character. Attempts to play off on the psychology of the apes around him and break Caesar’s spirit brutally. It’s especially impressive given he’s really the only prominent human voice in an ape dominated story. Yet, it’s fitting given War shows the changing dynamics in human/ape interaction on both a literal and moral level in a way that shows our loose grasp on nature and time as a species in comparison to these apes.
Co-writer/director Matt Reeves really did step up the world Rupert Wyatt created in Rise with Dawn. Yet, his work on War manages to outshine both in stunning fashion. The post-apocalypse world of War is one that feels further decayed than Dawn. Evolving from the elephant graveyard with a few pieces of landscape left behind to a woodland covered ghostly echo of humanity’s presence. The snow covered woodlands of California says everything about our fates more than anything that could be vocalized. Along with Logan, The Girl With All The Gifts and It Comes At Night show that we don’t need a film adaptation of The Last of Us video game when the endless wasteland of our former world is depicted this well. Reeves’ effortless transitions from sweeping action shots to grounded subtle interaction gives War the type of scope few franchise entries ever manage to get anywhere near. The juggling of thematic heft, emotional turmoil and shocking revelations in the last act in particular is a marvel. Each moment of emotive power is punctuated by an explosive punch to the gut. Where most big films tend to shrivel up into nonsense, War strides over the finish line with so much confidence and earned pathos.
War makes the modern Apes franchise something rare. A trilogy of films that not only remain consistently impressive, but actually advance with each entry in quality. Rise introduced the world, Dawn worked out the kinks and War flawlessly delivers on every single promise without missing a single beat. Despite how landmark the original Apes films were, the consistency from film to film ranged dramatically wild, especially with the incredibly bizarre continuity. War and its predecessors feel like there’s genuine forward momentum on a plot and character level with each successive entry that never feels disingenuous. While the 1968 original is still the best overall Ape film for its perfect sense of mad style and still relevant satiric edge, War stands on equal footing but for very different reasons. It speaks to our modern struggles, entertains wildly and leaves us in awe of a world ruled by Apes. Looks like War really did it. It finally made a monkey out of me.
Rating: (4.5 / 5)