War for the Planet of the Apes | Matt Reeves | July 14th, 2017
Six years ago, I went to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I wasn’t particularly excited to see it. Yeah, I had watched the 1968 original Planet of the Apes when I was younger and remember it being a pretty good movie, but definitely a product of that era. The costumes were cheesy, the acting was muffled through masks, and its age definitely shows. When Rise came out in 2011, I had pretty low expectations for the film. I was pleasantly surprised, as Rise of the Planet of the Apes turned out to be one of my favorite movies of the year, surprising me at how much it made me care about the primate characters.
If you had told me that this was the beginning of one of the best trilogies of all-time, I would have laughed it off. Then 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was yet another pleasant surprise. It had excellent action sequences and a brooding sense of dread. Again, the ape characters stole the show. You cared about them and rooted for them at every turn. It crafted the initial conflict that has lead to this final Apes film.
Once again, I am somehow completely surprised with this series. War for the Planet of the Apes in the running for my favorite movie of the year so far. I could use a slew of adjectives like “gripping,” “fantastic,” or “masterpiece.” While it is all those things, the one thing that stood out is this: the film moved me. The events in the story were crafted with care, so the emotional moments come across as genuine and so, so earned. The story of Caesar the ape has been one that I never thought I’d care about. When the film ended, I sat thinking about the ape characters, and how emotionally invested I was in them.
Matt Reeves returns again to direct this sequel, and he has created a worthy trilogy capper. War begins with Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his group of apes capturing soldiers that are trying to discover Caesar’s home fortress. Caesar lets the captured humans go, as a show of good faith. Later that night, soldiers return to the apes’ home base and engage in a fight with the apes. Casualties occur, and Caesar sets out on a mission to find and take down The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who planned the assault on his home base. Along the way, Caesar stumbles upon a young girl (Amiah Miller). Not wanting to leave the girl to die, Caesar and the other apes decide to bring her along.
Woody Harrelson taps into his dark True Detective side while playing The Colonel. He is ruthless, calculated, and only interested in the survival of the human race at any cost. The soldiers he commands also include some apes that have defected. One gorilla, Rex, is now on the side of the humans, and you can see him grappling with his loyalty. This ending up being one of the better subplots in the film.
Caesar is also trying to remain loyal to himself and to the apes that consider him the leader. There are many moments in the film where Caesar feels like a failure, and you can sense his deep desperation and guilt over some of his actions. Andy Serkis does a fantastic job once again as Caesar. The special effects are top notch and actually reminded me of the first Jurassic Park. The apes in this film look so real that I hardly ever thought about the motion-capture actors that played them.
The performances here are flat-out amazing. Each ape has their own personality. Only a few can actually speak, so the rest speak in sign language, making for a lot of silent moments in the film. These quiet moments are huge. Each ape character has a role to play, and the newcomer “Bad Ape” played by Steve Zahn is sympathetic, sweet, and provides most of the film’s laughs (as sparse as they may be). When Caesar and The Colonel meet face to face, the two actors bring their “A-game”. They’re both leaders who have more in common than they’d like to admit.
I don’t want to say much more about the plot, but I will say that this feels like an actual war movie. There are prison camps, torture, brutal deaths, both on and off-screen, and generally a lot of suffering. It has sections that are fairly bleak, involving the imprisonment and slavery of some of the apes. At the same time, it’s also one of the most hopeful movies in a long time. Earlier this year, Logan paved the way for a new type of mature, emotional and bleak blockbuster. War for the Planet of the Apes continues this trend.
The journey of Caesar and his apes has been a uniquely satisfying one. Each film in the trilogy felt like its own story, while also progressing the character of Caesar as the leader. He is selfless in this trilogy finale. Harrelson is a great villain to end this story with, as a man blinded by his desire to survive and keep humanity at the top of the pecking order.
Overall, this is a stunning achievement of cinema. The direction, acting, music, and CGI are all top notch. Add that to a compelling story, and this is a true triumph of emotional storytelling. War for the Planet of the Apes is sure to be one of the best movies of the summer and possibly the year.