‘War for the Planet of the Apes’: Monkeys, Go Home!

One cannot emphasise enough how impressive an achievement it is that Andy Serkis et al have driven a story of talking monkeys to the degree of plausibility and realism that the Of The Planet of the Apes movies operate at. As War — directed once again by Matt Reeves and concluding the trilogy of films about Caesar the ape revolutionary — came to an end, I audibly witnessed several members of the cinema audience in tears, moved to great lengths by this story of simian sacrifice; that is a great feat of storytelling.

With that in mind, there are moments in War that stretched the believability of this story to its limits: mostly involving Caesar’s much-improved verbal communication, which now includes references to his “wife” — I’m sceptical that apes would adopt, or even comprehend, the flawed human institution of marriage. Those are the sort of details one focuses on in this film, which is almost an hour longer than 2011’s Rise, and very much feels it. I can’t lie: even my own tolerance was pushed to the edge by the running time of this film; I can only find interesting elements of Caesar’s fur to marvel at for so long, and very little of consequence occurs for much of the drama. The ‘War’ of the title doesn’t come until the final 20 minutes, and isn’t much of a war at all. The middle act of War is a patience-testing stretch of animal cruelty and confinement, as Caesar is locked in the Colonel (Woody Harrelson)’s prison camp and forced to build a wall to keep out opposing human forces. Humans aren’t very important in War; there are essentially only two people who are given names, the Colonel (is that even a name though?) and young girl Nova (not even her real name), played impressively by Amiah Miller.

More than even before, the filmmaker’s sympathies overtly belong to the ape community, led by Andy Serkis’ Caesar. Caesar, officially cemented as a 21st century cinema icon, rivals Gollum as the defining role of Serkis’ career, and it’s done great favours for Serkis’ performance that the human actors playing opposite him have consistently lacked charisma throughout this trilogy. War’s Jason Clarke simply isn’t an interesting guy, but for Woody Harrelson to be given such a one-note role is testament to the screenwriter’s total dedication to keeping Caesar as the most compelling figure onscreen.

The Colonel is a real bastard and, other than the natural charm Harrelson can’t contain, it’s hard to understand the appeal for the soldiers following his lead. There’s a twist involving the virus from Rise RETURNED that leads to a profoundly dark revelation from the Colonel; one that shows some fair fearlessness from Fox for inclusion in a PG-13 summer blockbuster. Equally brave is the film’s pacing, with opening and closing action spectacles but very little in between. One imagines the main compromise in adding some essential levity is the Steve Zahn character, Bad Ape, the closest the franchise has come to comic relief. Zahn is undeniably the most physically distinctive actor to do mo-cap on these films, and his persona does shine through in the performance; were this film to break through the typical Apes bubble into mainstream consciousness, Bad Ape could potentially become a big seller of t-shirts; the Groot of this franchise.

Where all three Of The Planet of the Apes films have excelled is in bridging the space between what is considered human and animal, visually and emotionally. The apes depicted in these films are shockingly human; has any other blockbuster franchise been such a strong bearer of values for vegetarianism? The emotional charge in this installment has an incredible intensity — largely responsible to Michael Giacchino’s beautiful score, incorporating a hybrid of his “Live Together Die Alone” theme from Lost and a bombastic interpretation of dancing chimp music. Reeves’ decision to shoot mo-cap on location allows for sequences of stunning composition, and there’s a richness and diversity to the landscapes that even Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book didn’t showcase.

While both Rise and Dawn (which remains the peak of the trilogy) are stunning technical accomplishments, neither holds a particular rewatchability: they’re almost too grim, too lacking in clearly-defined ‘memorable moments’. On that level, War is even less likely to fly off the Blu-Ray shelves. Yet while War arguably lacks in unconventional ideas, it is a haven of individualism; a treat for cinema lovers in a summer of Transformers, Pirates and Spider-Men (don’t even mention King Arthur). The Apes movies aren’t concerned with selling toys, McDonald’s tie-ins or even establishing further entries (War’s conclusion is oddly finite). There are mo-cap performers listed in the end credits who have already established themselves in other films, be it Kong: Skull Island or Warcraft. Andy Serkis has jump-started countless careers with his exceptional commitment to a truly promising medium. For now, he (and two superb directors) have given us one of the century’s most consistent blockbuster trilogies. Three films, together, strong.