by Jeremy Kirk
July 14, 2017
The Planet of the Apes series is as inevitable to the world of science fiction film as laws of nature are to the actual world. There will always be a continuation to the franchise that began in 1968 and instantly turned sci-fi on its ear. So, too, is the inevitability of the new trilogy of films that serves as precursor to that original franchise, first in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes and again in 2014 with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Completing this trilogy is War for the Planet of the Apes, a film that delivers on all aspects to that title with absolute precision and then some. Under direction by Dawn director Matt Reeves and aided by a stunning, motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis, War is an emotionally charged and impressively executed culmination of this reboot that will likely go down as memorably as that original, sci-fi classic.
Once again Serkis fills the role of Caesar, the chimp who, through genetic engineering, has evolved beyond the normal confines of nature. He leads a band of intelligent apes against human forces who fear what the presence of these evolved simians in the world means for them. At the beginning of War, Caesar and his community of highly intelligent apes have been battling the humans for two years, the fighting costing many lives on both sides of the conflict. Caesar and his clan don’t want to fight. They simply want to carry out a peaceful existence in the woods of northern California where human, military actions have driven them.
A new threat emerges, though, in “Alpha-Omega”, a strong military faction that relentlessly pursues Caesar’s community with the ultimate goal of wiping the evolved apes out for good. Led by a nameless “Colonel” (Woody Harrelson) and with the aid of evolved apes who no longer follow Caesar, Alpha-Omega tracks the group back to their home base. An attack on the base leaves the group battered with some loss of life hitting very close to Caesar personally, and the group must travel across the desert in order to find a new home. Caesar, however, becomes consumed with vengeance against the human attackers, especially the Colonel, and he, along with a small squad of his closest allies, attempts to track Alpha-Omega down at their source and put an end to the conflict once and for all.
A natural progression from where the story left off in Dawn, War takes no time establishing this new world and the conflict in which we now find the apes. The screenplay, written by returning screenwriter Mark Bomback as well as Matt Reeves, sprinkles in details of this world with organic ease that makes it feel all the more natural. As with any, real-life confrontation, both sides of the battle see themselves in the right, the motivations between them are clearly defined. Those details littered throughout the film and the relationships established within the groups make the conflict all the more engaging. It doesn’t matter which side of the line you come down in agreement upon, you know full well why this battle continues to rage on.
The catalyst for this confrontation, the ape Koba and the rage he held against the humans that mistreated him and his kind, has long-since been resolved, but the conflict, itself, carries on. The long-term effects of Koba’s actions from Dawn, however, continue to linger long after his death with both sides, man and ape, attempting to claim victory in this battle neither side was directly responsible for.
These motivations translate a clear reasoning for the war raging on, but Reeves isn’t satisfied with his film being a battle-for-battles-sake war epic. Much of War slips into a more personal side of conflict establishing these relationships between Caesar and the apes for which he yearns for peace. The war certainly comes with massive battles bookending the film’s central story, and the director succeeds with remarkable results on both sides of the coin. The quietness of much of War, though, establishes the very goal both sides are attempting, that peace that can only be fulfilled with the absolute annihilation of the opposing force.
The progression of the story continues to develop this world so that it fits in comfortably as prequel to the 1968 original, as well. Their search for Alpha-Omega reveals that the airborne disease that decimated the world’s human population and evolved the apes has again mutated. It now robs afflicted humans of their abilities that make them a superior race, speech being the first element to go, and only reinforces the motivations behind the humans’ desire to wipe out the evolved creatures. This sets up a remarkable subplot: a young girl the small squad of apes finds and takes in who has been afflicted. The girl’s story reinforces the peaceful desires of the apes and puts Caesar’s own rage against Alpha-Omega into perspective.
All of this is made even more powerful by the incredible work being done here by Serkis and the digital effects team from Weta that brings Caesar to cinematic life. Much of Serkis’ work in this series as well as films like King Kong and the Lord of the Rings trilogy has been somewhat dulled by the visual effects, but the actor’s performance comes through vibrantly in War. The visual effects are still groundbreaking and impressive to say the very least, but it’s here, in War, where the nuanced but effective performance Serkis gives becomes front and center. It’s high time for the actor to receive awards consideration for the work he does giving Caesar life beyond the performance-capture special effects.
Harrelson also gives an impressive turn as The Colonel, primarily quiet and stout but not without a sense of vulnerability buried deep within. He’s a character with depth particularly in this highly developed and lived-in world the screenwriters offer, and this sensibility that he is a man of this world gives his motivations all the more resonance and understanding. Elsewhere, War is loaded with remarkable performances through motion-capture effects that create the group of apes, chief among these Steve Zahn who, as “Bad Ape”, an evolved simian the squad stumbles upon, provides the film with much-needed and effective comic relief. Some of Bad Ape’s antics come across a little forced, but, given the dark and serious nature of much of War, it’s a welcome element that ultimately succeeds.
War for the Planet of the Apes, on top of being a spectacularly grounded epic in the sci-fi world, is a superb achievement in blockbuster filmmaking. Reeves’ ability in telling a personal story as well as delivering on all that that title promises makes the film something of a breath of fresh air when it comes to big-budget, summer fare. While it seems inevitable that the Planet of the Apes franchise will continue beyond this film, War for the Planet of the Apes is a magnificent conclusion to a near-perfect trilogy, itself a remarkable accomplishment when it comes to franchise filmmaking. The future of this series may never achieve the same levels of accomplishment as these stories of Caesar and the apes he leads, but the trilogy of films that tells Caesar’s story will likely be remembered as successfully as the original series in which it follows.