The Movie Lover’s Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

The Movie Lover’s A review of War for the Planet of the Apes is here despite being SO EMOTIONAL!

Despite this misleading promo image, the war does indeed rage on.

There is a scene near the end of director Matt Reeves’ stunning and gorgeous War for the Planet of the Apes where the weathered and tired Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his loyal and wise second-hand Maurice (Karin Konoval) share a quiet moment together that nearly brought me to tears, reaffirming that not only is Andy Serkis a modern-day magician of state-of-the-art special effect performance, but that this rebooted Apes trilogy has served as one of the most expertly crafted trilogies in recent decades. As a capper, it is just as character-driven yet spectacle-laden as the previous entires, proving that not every franchise needs to be splashed with bright colors or product tie ins to appease the children.

War starts with one of the more effective text-on-screen recaps in recent memory, bringing audiences back into the fold of the last two films, Rise and Dawn. It wastes no time thrusting us into the middle of a skirmish between human armed forces and defending apes in an impressive opening battle that costs numerous lives on both sides. Reeves is able to take an opening, harrowing action sequence and tell the audience so much about the opposing sides. The humans are desperate, resorting to taking on ape allies called ‘Donkeys’ who were previously loyal to the treacherous Koba from Dawn. The apes are well fortified but looking for an escape nonetheless, able to repeal the humans but not without losses.

But it’s not the action sequences where Reeves does his most effective storytelling (though, to be clear, his action direction is stunning). No, rather the strongest moments of the film are the quietest, with nearly-silent conversations being had amongst the apes through various grunts, sign-language with subtitles, and of course, Caesar’s powerful spoken word. These characters are some of the richest in memory, having blossomed from minor players in Rise all the way to trusted generals and friends in War. Reeves allows his characters to shine and drive the story forward, and the film is all the more enriched because of it. His work here has me practically frothing with excitement to see what he has in store for Ben Affleck’s solo The Batman film currently in preproduction.

Oddly enough, the titular War raging in War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t between Apes and Men. Sure, there are a few skirmishes here and there, but it is a war mostly battled inside of Caesar’s soul. Hell bent on revenge against the ruthless human Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), Caesar is on what amounts to a suicide mission, joined by a small group of steady and true cohorts, including the aforementioned Maurice, as well as Rocket and Luca. Caesar is constantly haunted by Koba (Toby Kebbell), and struggles with succumbing to the dangerous cocktail of weariness and rage boiling inside of him. Though the expectations were set by the marketing materials for an all-out Saving Private Ryan of Apes films, Reeves instead has put together a relatively quiet, introspective mashup with occasional bursts of action. It winds up resembling something closer to The Outlaw Josey Wales meets Bridge on the River Kwai meets The Great Escape. The film goes from battles, to a long journey suicide mission, to a breakout film, before circling back around to battles again. It could prove to be a disappointing payoff for those promised ape vs. man warfare, but ultimately it works because Reeves has such a deft direction of his narrative and his characters.

As steady and confident as Reeves is as a director, I don’t think War, let alone this entire trilogy, would be nearly as successful if it weren’t for the sheer brilliance on display by Andy Serkis and the rest of his cast. Serkis is well-known as a pioneer of motion capture performance, and his performance in this trilogy as Caesar is his masterpiece. Casesar is one of the most completely characters in years, motion-capture notwithstanding. His journey from awakening in Rise and accepting leadership in Dawn leads us to his world-weary desperation in War. The baggage that he has accumulated throughout the series weighs heavily on him, and Serkis brings all of that baggage with him, even in scenes where it’s only Caesar’s eyes that are doing the communicating. It is a masterful, beautiful performance, and it only brings to light further how much of a travesty it is that Serkis has not been adequately recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for his work.

Serkis is and has always been complimented by a strong cast of supporting actors around him, with the population of central human characters appropriately dwindling from each film. Gone are the days of James Franco, Freida Pinto, and John Lithgow. Hell, gone are the days of Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, and Keri Russell. Replacing all the kindhearted or even conflicted human characters is Woody Harrelson as the righteous and ruthless Colonel, struggling to retain what is left of humanity by any means necessary, and thus giving up his humanity by stripping away compassion and replacing it with fury and absolution. When Woody Harrelson plays serious, it’s a real treat, and he makes for an excellent, interesting foil for Caesar, and their confrontations are some of the best scenes in the film. Also along for the ride is the young girl Nova, played in a beautifully silent performance by Amiah Miller. Her namesake is something rather important to the Apes film mythology, but I won’t connect the dots for you.

But the real supporting power comes from the fellow motion capture actors playing the various apes on screen. Konoval as Maurice is one of my favorite characters in the entire series, looking mind-boggling photoreal. Terry Notary’s Rocket has been by Caesar’s side since his original captivity in Rise, and his character has grown in loyalty ever since Caesar gave him a cookie. Other standouts include Ty Olsson as Red, a gorilla teaming with the humans, and Aleks Paunovic’s Winter, another gorilla whose fear forces him into some bad decisions. The standout new addition, however, is Steve Zahn as Bad Ape. The talking Bad Ape serves as a welcome bit of lighthearted comedic relief in a film that could get bogged down by it’s dreariness, and also shows that Caesar’s intelligence has spread further out into the world beyond just his tribe. Zahn get’s some of the best beats in the film with his wide-eyed reactions, and you can practically see the wheels turning in his head as he tries to figure ways out of the various predicaments they get into.

The film is technically astounding, and it’s a genuine shock that visual effects wizards Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, and their team have not won an Oscar for their groundbreaking work here. I think that the film community is having a hard time trying to understand the relationship that visual effects artists have with the actors on these films, and it’s shortchanging the both of them for the game-changing work that they’ve put forth in this series. Michael Giacchino puts together a score that manages to be both quiet and rousing, returning to some of his themes from the previous film whilst building all new compositions that compliment the film so well. It’s one of his best, most emotional scores to date, and it helps give War for the Planet of the Apes its heart.

While War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t the relentless war film that was advertised, it is an amazing built story following Caesar down an inevitable path of darkness that war takes many people. It’s the struggle to remain good that is the primary conflict here, even more so than that with the Colonel. More than anything else, however, it is a satisfying and strong concluding chapter for an inexplicably great film trilogy. No one could have predicted that a reboot/prequel series of Planet of the Apes films could be so powerfully focused on emotion and character but series writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback along with directors Rupert Wyatt (for Rise) and Matt Reeves (Dawn and War) have pieced together a full and complete story for Caesar and his cohorts. If anything, the series could continue, but for right now, let’s just bask in the glory and improbability of such a strong, technically astounding, studio-backed franchise capping its trilogy with maybe the strongest entry yet.

The Final Grade
Though not the explosive war film advertised, War for the Planet of the Apes is nonetheless an astonishing rarity in all forms. A studio-backed, effects-heavy action/drama that is motivated by strong characters, raw emotions, and masterful storytelling. Director Matt Reeves and actor Andy Serkis have delivered a film that is quiet and introspective whilst also being bombastic and rousing, putting a wonderful bow on the Apes prequel trilogy.
A (96%)