‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Review: Hail, Caesar

[This is a re-post of my review that posted in late June. War for the Planet of the Apes opens tonight.]

The Planet of the Apes franchise has many legacies, but among my favorite is that these movies really get away with something. There’s really no such thing as a “safe” Planet of the Apes movie because all of them are indictments of humanity in some way. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is perhaps the most audience friendly of the saga, but even that has given way to the bleak Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Matt Reeves’ concluding and even bleaker chapter War for the Planet of the Apes. While other franchises have to make concessions “for the fans” (i.e. people who demands nostalgic reverence and reaffirming nods rather than challenging movies) or try to chase trends, the Apes movies have surprisingly been left alone, allowed to flourish, thrive, and become one of the best sci-fi series ever made.

Although War for the Planet of the Apes’ summer release date combined with the VFX-heavy work required to bring the apes to life signals a “summer blockbuster,” Reeves has not made that movie. If anything, there’s probably less action than 2014’s Dawn, and it’s ultimately for the better. War is a somber, tense journey that goes from being a revenge film to a savior narrative to an escape story, but Reeves expertly weaves it all together through Caesar and the culmination of a saga that started back with Rise.

Image via 20th Century Fox

War picks up two years after the events of Dawn. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of apes have been squaring off against the troops that were called in at the end of the last movie, led by a relentless, Kurtzian figure known The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After an attack on his home, Caesar breaks away from his apes to track down and exact revenge on the Colonel, but close friends Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) lend their support. As they make their way to find the Colonel’s compound, they eventually join up with Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), an ape who learned to talk despite not being from Caesar’s tribe, and Nova (Amiah Miller), a young human girl who has lost the ability to speak.

The Apes franchise, especially this installment, could have easily devolved into an empty spectacle of humans fighting apes, and while there is a skirmish at the beginning of the film that shows why the two sides are evenly matched, it’s clear that Reeves doesn’t have much interest in staging these battles even though he’s incredibly good at it. Instead, he’s far more focused on the interior life of his characters, especially Caesar and how he relates to his fellow apes as well as trying to bring peace to his people.

Image via 20th Century Fox

War for the Planet of the Apes ends up making a strong case for the necessity of franchise filmmaking. While franchises can certainly be hollow and lack stakes as studios keep focusing on future installments and wringing out every ounce of profit before the audience grows tired of the property, the Caesar Trilogy gains its power from being a complete story that follows not only Caesar, but also Maurice and Rocket. War is not a movie you can dive right into, because the emotional impact will be diminished if you haven’t seen Rise and Dawn.

And yet War feels like a completely different animal from those first two features. While Rise was the safe reboot with a hint of the darkness to come and Dawn was about the missed opportunity for reconciliation in the face of insurmountable hatred (as represented by Koba), War is a weary traveler reaching the end of his journey. It’s a movie that forces Caesar to consider what he’s fighting for, and what his life and his decisions have led to. He wants to provide a better future for his family, but Koba’s memory haunts him; Caesar worries that his own hatred and prejudice will lead him down a similar path of self-destruction. And yet, he’s also met an immovable object, as represented by the Colonel, who, as insane as he is, does have some method to his madness as he sees the apes as a threat to human civilization (of course, zealots tend to see all opposition as threats to human civilization; it’s part of their zealotry).

Image via 20th Century Fox

There’s a lot going on in War, but Reeves never pushes it. He never has a character simply announce a theme of the film or directly address the subtext. He lets the action do the talking, and the message is the same one the Apes movies have been blaring since they began—humanity doesn’t deserve to survive. There may be bright spots like Nova, but in War, humanity is firmly in decline, having given power to the deranged Colonel, who insists on branding all of his troops with an alpha and omega to represent how his forces are “The Beginning and the End.”

Unlike Dawn, there are no “good” humans in War. There’s no one who can be swayed, and no voice of reason and understanding. Nova is human, but her inability to speak and young age remove her from both the human world and the ape world, positioning her as the beginning of a civilization that will no longer be the dominant species, but instead have to either be subservient to apes or live alongside them.

Image via 20th Century Fox

Although War can be seen as a larger parable about the shortcomings of the human race, in the short term, it’s a powerful reflection of America in decline. Despite being filmed before Donald Trump was elected, it’s acutely aware of the cult of personality he defined and the people willing to follow him. The Colonel stands over an American flag, but that flag is branded with his alpha and omega sign. He has co-opted the country because he believes that the “other”—in this case, hyper-intelligent, super-strong apes—will supplant humanity. Rather than working for peace, he only sees a zero-sum game where one race comes out on top, and if apes want to stick around, they must be second-class citizens (cleverly referred to as “Donkeys” by the Colonel’s troops) who serve. Also (I kid you not), he’s building a wall.

That’s the kind of politically rich subtext I’ve come to expect from the Apes franchise, and Reeves never disappoints, but always makes it a character-centered drama with Serkis’ outstanding performance once again working its magic. People will continue to argue whether or not Serkis deserves credit or if it’s the animators at WETA, but for me Serkis is the true MVP. He’s driving this performance, and without his choices and his delivery, the animators could only do so much. Not just anyone can do what Serkis does, and over the course of three movies, he has crafted one of the most heartbreaking and fully-realized characters in blockbuster filmmaking. You can be dazzled by WETA’s work, which continues to the push the envelope of VFX, but you have to acknowledge that actors matter, and perhaps none more so than Serkis in the motion-capture field.

Image via 20th Century Fox

Reeves brings it all together in a haunting, vivid portrait that skillfully blends the demands of blockbuster spectacle together with a deeply emotional undercurrent. Michael Giacchino’s score skillfully moves between melancholy tones and frenetic melodies that would have been right at home alongside the original Planet of the Apes. Michael Seresin’s cinematography is astounding, capturing the look of an Apes film in a way that hasn’t been done before but still fits perfectly within this trilogy. It’s an absolute triumph of craftsmanship all in service of a movie that on the surface is about apes taking over the planet.

The central conceit of the franchise—that apes will take over the world—has always been the franchise’s greatest strength and weakness. It causes people who have never seen an Apes movie to dismiss it as silly sci-fi and allows people who love the franchise to enjoy watching the series evolve on its own terms. The Apes movies, and certainly War for the Planet of the Apes, get at much deeper ideas than most blockbusters, and they’re designed to both thrill and disturb. War raises interesting questions about the rules of civilization, how one society falls while another rises, and how one must weigh the responsibility of leadership against personal demons. The Planet of the Apes franchise remains one of the great film series of all-time, and War for the Planet of the Apes is among its best entries.

Rating: A

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