All images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
The Planet of the Apes movie franchise is iconic. Built on the 1963 French novel La Planète des Singes by Pierre Boulle the movies started with the groundbreaking original starring Charlton Heston and soon spawned numerous sequels, a TV series and that Tim Burton one starring Mark Wahlberg that we would all like to forget. The entire scope of the franchise changed in 2011 with Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which set up the franchise into something unexpectedly brilliant with its unparalleled special effects and gripping narrative. But when Matt Reeves jumped on board as director for Dawn of the Planet Apes, he elevated it even more with thematic greatness and nuance. That said, there’s an initial feeling that Reeves’s WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES would fall under the “third installment-in-a-trilogy” curse (see: The Godfather III, Back to the Future III, X-Men: The Last Stand). Rest assured, Reeves goes above and beyond the call of duty and elevates the Apes franchise even more, making War for the Planet of the Apes an epic masterpiece to bookend an outstanding sci-fi trilogy.
For War, Reeves reunited Mark Bomback to write the screenplay which finds the world divided (sound familiar?) between human and ape. The apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) just want to live their lives in the woods, but are constantly at battle with human soldiers under the command of the ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson). Tired of all of this war nonsense, Caesar wants to lead his colony to a new home but during an invasion, Caesar suffers a devastating loss which ignites a Koba-like rage. As the rest of the apes go off to find their new home, he sets off on a journey with his trusty advisor Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) to find the Colonel’s base and destroy him.
While on their journey, they encounter a lone mute human girl (Amiah Miller) who Maurice insists they bring along to take care of. Things also take an interesting turn when they meet an eccentric chimpanzee who calls himself, “Bad Ape” (sure to be a fan favorite played by Steve Zahn) that, like Caesar, can talk. They learn that he has been living on his own in an abandoned ski resort after escaping from the zoo. More than that, they learn that the simian virus (that was introduced in the first film) has mutated and is causing apes to get smarter, which isn’t going over too well with humans — because they like to be in control. Also, this mutated virus is making them dumber.
When Caesar and the gang find the Colonel’s base of renegades, they see that they have imprisoned their entire colony and the Colonel is making them build a wall to protect his base from any intruders (again, sound familiar?). Naturally, Caesar is pissed. So he devises a plan to break out the prisoners only to get captured and enslaved himself. Coming face to face with the Colonel fuels Caesar’s resilience to fight for him and his fellow apes. The end result being an emotional and harrowing film that is unbelievably phenomenal from all angles.
Reeves has managed to take a blockbuster-grade epic franchise and mold it into a film that parallels the character-driven narrative of an indie persuasion. The awe-inspiring WETA effects are amazing, but Reeves and the actors in mo-cap suits don’t let it control the movie or the story. Reeves manages to bring a sense of intimacy to the grandness of this film — which is a difficult task. His diverse sensibilities allow him to frame riveting war scenes and build heart-racing tension, but at the same time, paint authentic moments of emotional serenity and fully-realized characters that are incredibly present in scenes void of dialogue but rich with nuance. Bottom line: Reeves is remarkable. Sure, I may have a bias because I’m an uber-fan of Felicity, but still.
Serkis continues his reign as mo-cap king, but his role as Caesar is different — very different. He transcends that role of a motion capture character and turns it into something more. Since stepping into that unitard with dots in 2005 to portray the revolutionary primate, he has made Caesar into a fully fleshed-out being that has gone on a character journey more poignant than some of the crap we have seen on the big screen in the past 10 years.
War is the first time we see Caesar without a human by his side. In Rise, Will (James Franco) fosters him and in Dawn, he befriends Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell a.k.a. Felicity). In War, he has had it with humans and it’s just him and his homeboys (or should I say homeprimates?). Serkis doesn’t have a character to give him a humanistic grounding. In a sense, it makes his character more vulnerable, therefore making him more guarded and on the defense. It’s nothing short of brilliant of what Serkis does with Caesar in this film, delivering an award-worthy performance that overtakes the CG and pierces your soul.
Serkis is surrounded by a phenomenal cast of players with Harrelson the perfect yin to his yang, playing a baddie that isn’t heartless for the sake of cinematic necessity, but heartless because he is a broken man that is acting out as a result of his own devastating loss — which connects the pair. As a villain, Harrelson shines in what could have been a one-dimensional mustache-twirling role.
As the title suggest, this is a war movie with many Platoon-esque “Agnus Dei” moments. There is one point when the Colonel references Custer’s Last Stand, which is an appropriate comparison in this situation. The Colonel, as much as he wants to deny it, feels the impending doom of the existence of humanity which plays into the ongoing metaphor of oppression that is present throughout of the Apes franchise. Bad Ape (a character that easily could have been an unfortunate Jar Jar Binks-esque ordeal) says that humans were abusing apes because they were getting smart, it’s a huge reflection of today’s reality. War stays true to the source material, presenting an allegory of how marginalized communities are treated when they become smart to how the majority is treating them. Without blatantly hitting you over the head as a “message” film, Reeves finesses the spectacle with relevant political and social undertones without compromising the movie’s strong, emotionally connected narrative.
Reeves proves that it is possible to give a CG-laden summer blockbuster a soul and a substantial character-driven narrative — and proves it well —while Serkis is a beast (literally and figuratively) with his leading performance as Caesar, a character that is destined to be one of the most iconic heroes in cinematic history. With its cutting-edge visuals and extraordinary story of revolution, War for the Planet of the Apes is not only the first summer blockbuster worth watching, but is also the epitome of what a modern epic should be.
Running time: 139 minutes
Dino watches too much TV, enjoys reality singing competitions and laughs inappropriately during dramatic films. He’s a fan of comedy, podcasts, and comedy podcasts. He’s a reformed comic book geek and thinks “The Goonies” is the best movie of all time. When he isn’t stuffing his face with a burrito, he’s thinking about his next trip to Disneyland.
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Dino-Ray Ramos | Film Critic