When 20th Century Fox announced their intention to revive the Planet of the Apes franchise, a decade after the misfire that was the 2001 Tim Burton remake, with a series of prequel movies no less, more than a few thought it was a bad idea. But such low expectations only helped the surprise when the first instalment turned out better than anticipated. Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes introduced Caesar, as played by Andy Serkis, and introduced the Simian Flu that decimated mankind. Matt Reeves took over for 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which upped the ante, and now he concludes the trilogy and takes us home with the emotional, stirring War for the Planet of the Apes.
War is a strange beast: a thoughtful, brooding, introspective summer blockbuster that still manages to be thrilling and suspenseful. It’s not just a war movie; it’s also a road movie, a revenge film, a prison escape movie, a tale of elusive redemption, a Biblical allegory, and a commentary on 2017 America. Somehow it also manages to include a bit of fanservice, some nods to climate change, as well as a rumination of mercy and what it will get you. This film has many things on its mind.
The apes continue to be hunted by the remaining humans at the opening of War. While Caesar does his best to lead and keep the peace from turning into bloodlust, the emotional scars of his besting Koba at the end of the last film still make their presence felt. Plus, he understands that it’s only a matter of time before the humans find their makeshift stronghold. News comes via his son that a new, more suitable land has been found, though the way is long and treacherous. Unfortunately, just as they set begin to make plans for their massive, more permanent move, something occurs that sets Caesar on a red-rimmed path of vengeance, in the guise of keeping the enemy distracted while his people make their way. Naturally, things get quite complicated after that, and it’s quite a feat that things remain unpredictable.
Like 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, War calls into question what a Hollywood blockbuster can be, should be, and what we continue to be complacent and accepting of. Here is a movie that is smart and moral even if it shows some of its ostensible “heroes” straying from the path. It doesn’t show pat, easy answers. It knows everything worth achieving has a cost. It makes heavy parallels with the slavery and subjugation of an othered culture, building (what else?) a wall about which is said “It will not save you.” While painting with broad strokes, it doesn’t let a heavy hand guide it, remaining elegant and with just the right amount of pathos.
It helps when you’ve got great performers like Andy Serkis doing the heavy lifting. He so owns the character of Caesar now, and Caesar at the end of this trilogy is tired, and slower when he talks, but more purposeful. Serkis can do so much with so little, even if it is pancaked with gorgeous special effects, which have also continued to see improvement after improvement over the instalments. He is joined here by new additions Steve Zahn, who plays the only comic relief, a zoo-raised chimp named Bad Ape, and Woody Harrelson as the antagonist, whose danger of being one-note is thankfully resolved later on. Even their final showdown is a corker.
Reeves himself continues to improve as a director and shows how comfortable he is with either a very tense nighttime raid or an all-out battle or a stirring, rousing scene that earns Caesar back the loyalty of his people. Giacchino’s score is the best he’s done in a while.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a film to save the summer, along with Dunkirk, with Spider-Man: Homecoming, with Baby Driver. It’s smart, beatifully-made, thrilling, very emotional, and is a great example of how good our entertainment should be.
Photos from IMDb