9 out of 10
Andy Serkis as Caesar
Directed by Matt Reeves
War for the Planet of the Apes Review:
We have seen Caesar (Andy Serkis) grow from a child, to a young adult, to a husband and father, to a leader of his community and a brave warrior. We have seen him suffer victory, defeat, triumph, and heartbreak. And now, in War for the Planet of the Apes, he is presented with a possibility that he may not be able to overcome: extinction.
It has been a couple of years since the death of Koba (Toby Kebbell) and the arrival of a human army, led by the enigmatic Colonel (Woody Harrelson), with the sole purpose of wiping out the super-intelligent apes living outside the ruins of San Francisco. Caesar and his apes have been mostly successful in staying in hiding, but the Colonel and his men are relentless in tracking them down. When the movie begins, we are right in the thick of war between ape and human, but Caesar knows that against the humans and their superior firepower, his people’s only hope is to escape the forests and find refuge elsewhere. But suddenly, tragedy strikes, and Caesar, his orangutan mentor Maurice (Karin Konoval), friend Rocket (Terry Notary), and gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) must strike into the heart of the enemy. For Caesar, this is a final stand he must take, and for the Colonel, this may be the last chance humanity has.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a culmination of what we have seen this series build to so far. For fans of this franchise from the very beginning, they will see many pieces fall into place, and welcome explanations that stretch as far back as that first classic film. For fans who have been in since Rise of the Planet of the Apes, they may very well be satisfied with where this film takes them. Be aware, however, that War is the bleakest of this new series so far, taking its audience into dark and desolate territory. All that is left that we see of humanity is the brutal soldier, ready to kill Caesar and his people at a moment’s notice. As for Caesar himself, he is facing the possibility that everything he has fought for and suffered for may truly come to nothing. Caesar is beginning to despair.
But for the first time, we are made aware that the world outside of Caesar’s community is changing as well. Some humans are being kept outside of the Colonel’s camp, including young Nova (Amiah Miller), a child who seems strangely affected and who cannot speak. And then there is Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a chimpanzee who was never part of Caesar’s group, but who can nevertheless speak, and who seems to be living proof that the virus is taking hold across the world. Caesar, haunted by the memory of Koba and his own anger and hatred of the humans, begins to realize that there is no turning back. A choice must be made – for Caesar and his people, or for a life of slavery and extinction.
War for the Planet of the Apes is equal parts war movie, Western, revenge story, and even a touch of Apocalypse Now‘s existential nihilism. Gone are the days of idealism for Caesar, for hopes that human and ape could find some common ground. Instead, these are dark times, and the sparse cinematography and icy landscapes of War for the Planet of the Apes show us that this is a world that is coming to an end. War is surprisingly intimate, in comparison to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or even Rise. There are scenes that feel straight out of a Clint Eastwood film – look for visual homages to The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven – and there are no rousing feelgood action-beat moments. Director Matt Reeves, as he did in Dawn, takes the violence seriously, and there are very few moments of levity. The character of Bad Ape seems to be the main thrust of the lighter moments, and while that character may work for some, for others his humor will have a jarring, displacing effect. I loved Steve Zahn in this, but his funniest moments hit at some inopportune times.
As in Dawn, Reeves paints his heroes and his villains with equal attention. Harrelson’s Colonel certainly doesn’t see himself as the villain, but as the savior of humanity, and he will stop at nothing to make sure that that happens. There are apes allied with the humans – some who were remnants of Koba’s band, like Rex (Ty Olsson), and some with motivations all their own. There is no simple black and white here, although like the other films, War allies itself strictly with Caesar and the apes. At this point, we have bonded with these characters – the fiercely loyal Rocket, the kind, generous, and wise Maurice, the sturdy gorilla Luca, and the steadfast love of Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and son Blue Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones). When the story goes into those darkest places, we feel the hopelessness that Caesar feels, and we mourn along with him. There is allegory here, of course, much like the original films, but it’s only there if you want it. These can be entertaining science fiction films, or something deeper and more rewarding.
Someone give Andy Serkis an Oscar. Please. It really is that simple. His Caesar is an all-timer. I don’t care how much effects work went into animating his face, because you cannot fake that kind of performance. Serkis has carried these films and brought true emotion and power to pixels and motion capture. All of these actors deserve some kind of award for their work here. When Caesar’s heart breaks, so does ours. Caesar is one of the best cinematic heroes of the 21st century, and that is no disparagement against the teams of visual effects artists that help bring him and the other apes to life. The final battle of War is astounding in its effects work, but full of meaningful power that a million Transformers movies could never hope to accomplish.
There is hope in War for the Planet of the Apes. It is fleeting, like a snowflake on an icy breeze, or fragile, like the first bloom of spring after a harsh winter, but it is real. This wonderful, triumphant series, made with love, care, and intelligence, assures us that big-budget epic filmmaking can mean something, can touch all of us and give us rewarding cinematic experiences as rich as any since the days of Georges Méliès. I cannot wait to see what these films inspire, years from now, much as the original films sparked the imagination of a generation of filmmakers and filmgoers. I bet it’s going to be quite something to see.