The rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy has had a strange existence. With ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, it’s safe to say that most people were surprised at just how good the film was, better than it had any right to be, and becoming one of the surprise hits of 2011. Then along came ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ in 2014, a true blockbuster in every sense of the word by winning over audiences and critics alike thanks to its stunning visuals, compelling story, and wonderful performances. ‘Dawn’ stands tall as, for my money, one of the finest science-fiction films of the century. And yet, with ‘War’ upon us, the series as a whole isn’t yet mentioned alongside greats of cinema like ‘Back To The Future’, ‘Toy Story’, or ‘Lord of the Rings’. With Caesar’s return to the silver screen, Planet of the Apes has a series capper that manages to exceed and subvert our expectations and cement the series’ place as an all-time great trilogy.
After the events of ‘Dawn,’ in which Koba (Toby Kebbell) led a revolt against Caesar (Serkis) and a devastating battle against human survivors in San Francisco, the Ape colony are in hiding in an undisclosed location. We join the film in the middle of the action as a small troop of soldiers close in on an Ape camp for a surprise attack. After the attack, Caesar discovers the humans are capturing and using apes as “donkeys” in war to help the human cause. After the colony suffers a great loss, Caesar takes it upon himself to get revenge on the human in charge of this attack, The Colonel (Harrelson).
Upon reflection, it’s important for the prospective audience to know that ‘War’ may be a surprise to some. Given the title, it wouldn’t be foolish to expect Ape-on-Human anarchy throughout as the titular war rages on, but ‘War’ is, in fact, much more introspective and personal than I expected. Forgoing battle in favour of a grand character study of what it means to be human and what’s at stake for both humans and apes is a bold move for a summer blockbuster. That’s not to say there aren’t scenes of anarchy and battle and war, it’s just not the focus of the film. Caesar is at war with his inner demons as much as he is at war with The Colonel to protect his colony.
The series so far has had stellar performances from its apes, none more so than from Andy Serkis, but ‘War’ takes these performances to the next level. One must wonder what more Serkis must do to gain recognition from the Academy because his work in these films is utterly unparalleled. Caesar faces several obstacles to overcome, questions of family and loyalty and morality, all of which are written on his face in typically meticulous fashion. There are so many shots of Caesar’s eyes and they dominate the screen as he wrestles with himself and what he needs to do next. Caesar commands the screen in the same way he commands his colony. One raise of a hand is enough to silence a hundred apes, and he has the same effect on the viewing audience. Caesar is such an incredible achievement in character creation, design, and development that every word, every gesture feels weighty and important. Serkis’ fellow apes, Konoval, Notary, Zahn, are all impressive in their own right, but Serkis is the master, and in ‘War’ we are seeing a master at the very height of his powers.
If any criticism could be aimed at ‘Dawn’ it would be its lack of comic relief. ‘Dawn’ is a very dark film addressing a very serious subject matter, and while ‘War’ is no different by arguably going even darker, this criticism is addressed with the film-stealing Bad Ape (Zahn). After crossing paths with him accidentally on Caesar and company’s travels to find The Colonel, Bad Ape reveals himself to be an escaped chimpanzee from a zoo who learned to speak only by listening and, unlike most apes on screen, is unable to use sign language. Bad Ape learned to live on his own and meeting an ape of a different style to what we’re used to is a great touch for the third entry in the series. The comedy Bad Ape brings, both verbal and physical, is wholly satisfying, the highlight of which is a visual joke before they all set off on a long, cold journey north which had the entire cinema laughing.
Addressing the obvious, ‘War’ is home to the finest performance capture work in cinema. On a purely visual level, the Apes are stunning. No pixel has been left unused as every Ape on screen looks photorealistic, the most impressive of which on this front is Maurice (Konoval), the hulking Orangutan. Many, many critics state that the true power of any performance is in the eyes, and here it’s no different. Most of the Apes are unable to speak and communicate through sign language, so the eyes are as important as ever and each character’s eyes, whether Caesar, Maurice, Rocket (Notary), or Bad Ape, portray so much about their feelings in any given moment.
Beyond the Apes, the effects in general are stunning and I frequently found myself spellbound by the action on screen. Seamlessly blending CGI with humans, whether a small, lost girl (Miller) they found is hiding behind Maurice, or an Ape hands a human a machine gun magazine, it’s an achievement in itself that it looks so perfect. In scenes of battle and in quiet, dialogue filled scenes, the film manages to convince us that what we’re watching is real. If you were to show someone from even 1997 this film, they’d likely be convinced that these were real apes.
‘War’ is as good a series ender as any other. It manages to conclude Caesar’s arc in a satisfying way while keeping the doors open to future instalments. Reeves’ achievements with this film and ‘Dawn’ should not be underestimated as he has taken the fine foundation of ‘Rise’ and elevated it to a level beyond which any of us could have possibly imagined. For me, ‘Dawn’ remains the series’ peak, but ‘War’ is a stellar achievement in film-making. Apes. Trilogy. Strong.
Rhys’ rating: 9.1 out of 10
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Amiah Miller, Gabriel Chavarria