War for the Planet of the Apes
Reviewed by Eddie Daou
Spanning 9 films and almost 50 years, the Planet of the Apes series has been through it all. What started as a simple, smart throwback to 1940s sci-fi serials quickly devolved into ridiculous junk full of time travel, the explosion of earth, ape Abe Lincoln, and Mark Wahlberg. Time certainly was not on the side of the Apes series, with the reputation of the smart ideas of the original film tarnished through trashy sequels and a terrible remake. It seemed like the series was officially dead, and would stay only a relic of science-fiction's past.
But Hollywood's current reboot-obsessed culture had another idea: a prequel trilogy to the original film. And what once sounded like a terrible idea on paper surprised audiences with "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and its follow-up, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes". Both films were hits with critics and audiences alike, raking in solid box-office numbers as well. They signaled the complete resuscitation of a dead franchise, making it once again politically relevant by tackling our mistreatment of animals and the dangers of miscommunication. But now it's time for the end: the conflict between apes and humans that began at the close of "Dawn" comes to full in "War for the Planet of the Apes".
Right from the beginning, "War" is already getting its story moving. It's able to bypass the need for endless exposition that plagues many of today's blockbusters, all thanks to how the backstory needed is simply put in three quick, short title cards recapping any information needed for the viewers. It helps aplenty, making sure that you aren't missing a single beat in this story.
This is a film that makes the toughest request that any PG-13 blockbuster action movie has asked of its audiences: to root for the downfall of humanity. There isn't a human foil like in the two previous films to act as our "surrogate" in this story. This is a film about Caesar the ape, our protagonist, and his battle for his species' survival. All of the humans in this film are violent, evil, and despicable characters. Society has completely fallen, and human decency has gone with it. It's all about killing apes for them, about murdering to stay on top. The most evil of these humans have formed a militia led under the rule of The Colonel, the films' antagonist. The only characters we see in this film that display any sort of compassion are all apes, and a small child that Caesar encounters on his journey. Her name is Nova, and she acts strikingly similar to the evolved Apes in this film: she cannot speak, and is taught to communicate through the Apes' sign-language. She acts as a sign of hope for Caesar, a reminder of the inner good that was once within all humans. At this point in his evolution, Caesar the ape is as human as ever. He can speak fluent English and think just like us, and so can many of his fellow apes. But Caesar is a step ahead of them, being the most human of all. His journey in this film is towards accepting himself and his "human" nature, with all the negatives that it entails.
But "War" isn't only a stunner in terms of story and character. The technology being used to create the apes is absolutely jaw-dropping. The fact that every single one of the apes is totally created with motion-capture tech and computer-generated effects still shocks me. CGI tends to be overused in modern blockbusters, but "War" may have the best digital effects I have ever seen in any film. Seeing the close-ups of the apes faces on the big screen struck me with disbelief. It was too real, too textured to not be someone wearing a large amount of makeup or a mask. The fact that they were able to pull this off this well still stuns me.
"War" may be the final piece of evidence needed to qualify motion-capture actors as giving real-life performances. Andy Serkis gives what is certainly the best performance of 2017 so far in his role as Caesar. All of his movements are calculated, every expression feels like it is coming to life. Don't just give the visual effects team all the credit: Serkis' masterful performance brings Caesar to life unlike any actor ever could.
And Woody Harrelson gives a truly great performance as the films' villain as well. As The Colonel, Harrelson creates a formidable opponent for Caesar, one who stands out as a real threat to all of the apes' survival. His methods are certainly meant to invoke Holocaust imagery when he's rounding up apes and putting them into a huge concentration camp, but the films' use of the national anthem at a key moment of violence against the apes says numbers about what this film is trying to portray, and how The Colonel is key to understanding this film.
Credit must be given to director Matt Reeves for making everything fall into place perfectly here. He doesn't focus on the story or the action as most blockbusters do. Reeves focuses mainly on the characters, their growth, and their decisions. It's not driven by a need for action or plot developments, but on where the characters' stories need to go. It brings itself to a conclusion free of any logic-gaps or missing pieces. It's the only way that this story could have, or should have ended. And Reeves is just as gifted in creating the story as he is in giving the film some visually incredible moments. His cinematographer, Michael Seresin, gets some truly beautiful visuals out of this films' more quiet moments, and shows the dark side of the battles in an all-encompassing gaze during the films' most intense sequences.
The key feature of "War" is how it takes the functions of a sequel to the previous two films in its trilogy, a prequel to the original film, and a total standalone film all at once. It doesn't matter if you've only seen the new films "Rise" and "Dawn", it doesn't matter if you've only seen the original, and it doesn't even matter if you've never seen a Planet of the Apes film altogether. "War" tells a singular story that fits the mold of the series, but contains itself by having a beginning, middle, and end. There isn't a spinoff or crossover that needs to be introduced, nothing new that has to be thrown in for the next one. And in a modern age of filmmaking where sequels, spinoffs, and cinematic universes are the rage, "War" is a breath of fresh air. It's a reminder of the years before, when big budget science-fiction films didn't need to worry about anything other than a good story and good characters. It's given the ability to speak volumes about humanity and conflict itself.
We are in the beginning of a new wave of blockbuster filmmaking, one focused on crafting "adult" stories. Look at the massive success of R-rated films such as Logan and Mad Max: Fury Road. Films like Alien: Covenant fit this "dark" mold as well. More and more big-budget sci-fi and action films that aren't afraid to get real and bleak are slowly becoming the "next big thing", so to speak. But "War for the Planet of the Apes" reaches the levels of darkness and goes even deeper, all under a PG-13 moniker. It proves that it's not about what's being shown that makes a story dark, it's about what's being told. All of these kinds of films follow this key fact, and don't get too carried away with being dark. It hits all the right levels of what the story asks for. Believe me: if we're getting more and more films like this in the future, we are in for a heck of a treat.
All in all, "War for the Planet of the Apes" is a tremendous tale of humanity and its inner evil. Through moments of total darkness and small bouts of quiet beauty, this incredible, raw tale of Caesar the ape comes together as one of the most visually and technologically impressive, and all-around fantastic science-fiction films of the 21st century.