Apes back in kids!
Fingers crossed this means we’re getting Ape Escape revival sometime soon.
DIRECTOR: Matt Reeves
PRODUCERS: Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
WRITERS: Matt Bomback, Matt Reeves
GENRE: Science fiction
RELEASE DATE: July 14, 2017
RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes
STARRING: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Max Llyod-Jones, Devyn Dalton, Aleks Paunovic, Amiah Miller, Gabriel Chavarria
In the pantheon of great trilogies of film history, at least a few notable names spring to mind: Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, Toy Story…and the Riddick movies (shut up, I like ‘em). And really, given all these wonderful cinematic triumvirates, its hard to imagine that a series of three prequel films about Planet of the Apes would be joining these names, but here we are with War of the Planet of the Apes, making this particular situation a reality. Hoo-ray.
Really though, after watching War of the Planet of the Apes, its kind of crazy to think that a film like this (and indeed its two predecessors) actually works at all, given that 90% of the film is centered entirely around computer-generated apes. You tend to have a hard enough time getting empathy for characters with actual on-screen presence, let alone CGI apes, at yet they make for some of the most achingly human and heart-felt characters thus far committed to screen in this grand old year of 2017, or indeed any film of recent memory.
A huge, huge part of the effectiveness of War for the Planet of the Apes has to go to the design of the apes themselves, which is just nothing short of absolutely incredible. Each ape is just so detailed and realistic that any even slight feeling of cognitive disconnect just melts away almost immediately. While there’s always a lot of credit and praised heaped on the human actors behind these apes, not the least of which being Andy Serkis as Cesar, I still feel like you have to give almost as much props to the animators behind the apes as well. Alone, neither animator nor actor could effectively bring these apes to life, but together, the result is an incredible cinematic achievement, which I genuinely believe will be remembered as a true milestone in performance and special effects.
Of course, War of the Planet of the Apes is more than the sum of its aesthetics (though its aesthetics are wonderful). Rather, at its core, War for the Planet of the Apes is a rather straightforward tale of revenge, survival, and the nature of humanity and value of life. Picking up from Dawn, War sees the leader of the apes Cesar (Serkis) locked in a drawn-out, costly war with The Colonel (Harrelson), a ruthless human military commander leading an equally ruthless cult-like military body calling themselves Alpha Omega in a bid to wipe the apes out entirely. After being betrayed by one of his own and losing his wife and eldest son to the Colonel himself, Cesar sets out on a quest for revenge.
There are likely many alternate universe versions of War and indeed all the Apes prequels that are ham-fisted and ridiculous in their approach to characterizing the humans and apes and the nature of their conflict, but luckily for us, we ended up with the one where director Matt Reeves has handled them deftly with a staggering amount of nuance and subtlety. War is not a cheery film, but it’s incredibly heartening by how much emotion and humanity it imbues all its principle characters with. The apes are of course the absolute stand-out in that regard, their numerous and powerful moments of emotional climax are underscored with an impressive and refreshing restraint that seems to understand that louder is not always more powerful. The relatively low-key and quiet nature of most of the film’s most dramatic moment only serves to amplify them in a way that speaks to how well understood and handled the film’s material really is. Every single character feels fleshed-out and is spectacularly well-realized: even the film’s antagonists, monstrous though their actions may often be, are still understandable and even at times tragic and pitiable in their motivations. Whatever expectations I may have had going into War have been quickly and swiftly shattered by the careful way the film explores its characters.
And for a film named War for the Planet of the Apes, it is decidedly uninterested in presenting a story that actually concerns war, but rather delivered a far smaller, personal, and fascinatingly introspective tale about the nature of conflict itself. Really, War for the Planet of the Apes’ greatest strength in depicting the nature of conflict is how achingly human it all is- its not so much malice as just a series of mistakes and tragedies that progressively escalate, each one more painfully understandable than the last. Though its overall tone is often morose and laden with tragedy, War beautifully glides around the trap of becoming a depressing slog by the subtle, yet numerous, moments of warmth and genuine kindness, empathy, and humanity it presents throughout. It serves as a stark reminder of why we often like to believe wars are even fought in the first place. It’s a careful, even-handed, and deliberate approach to very heavy material that given the factors at play could have very easily gone awry. And for such a harrowing movie, War even has some welcome and very pleasantly handled comic relief. It’s pretty amazing that War’s brief sojourns into comedy don’t really conflict as much with the overall tone, but much like with everything else in War, it’s handled with grace and good taste.
Of course, War does stumble in a few places, though I do have to emphasise “a few” in this regard. There are at least a couple of moments where the script’s attempts to parse through exposition are noticeably very clunky: one particular early instance of this is profoundly point-blank to an almost comical degree. Though it should be said that even the film’s clunkier moments are swiftly saved and often elevated by really strong performances and blocking that does a lot to make these scenes mesmerizing and incredibly engaging. That said, some of War’s stabs at symbolism and metaphor I feel bordered at times on being overly heavy-handed, especially as far as religious symbolism and the Colonel’s crazy kooky military cult goes. This I thought didn’t work quite as well as the film’s deep and frequent references to Apocalypse Now, which given the material in both this film and that one, felt far more appropriate and worked a great deal more thematically.
I think War for the Planet of the Apes is a truly great example of a high-risk high-reward paying off incredibly well- with just the right amount of nuance, tact, heart, and satisfying emotional catharsis and manipulation, Matt Reeves and his crew have delivered a genuinely affecting and powerful story of conflict and humanity that oftentimes transcends many of its peers, and its all done with a cast that is almost entirely computer-generated in its screen presence. Not to use an incredibly tired review cliché, but I honestly think it’s appropriate here: War for the Planet of the Apes is a triumph. There I said it, I own it. It’s a triumph, goddamn it, and you should absolutely go see it when you have the chance, along with Rise and Dawn.