Thom Hetherington reviews Matt Reeves’ conclusion to the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy.
The Planet of the Apes films comprise one of Hollywood’s most inventive and long-standing franchises: it will reach its 50th birthday in 2018. At the core these films are pure sci-fi, boiling up the meat of big ideas for the audience to chew. It should come as no surprise, then – and yet it does – that War For The Planet of the Apes is a cerebral seminar in politics, war and destruction. The film opens with a brutal attack on the troupe of apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) and an attempt by the victorious apes to broker one last peace. But when this peace is irrevocably and brutally shattered the apes are forced to flee to safer ground whilst Caesar leaves the troupe behind to strike out upon his own path of revenge.
This is a war film in the same way that Bridge Over The River Kwaii is a war film – rather than, say, the way Saving Private Ryan is a war film. The mental toll of war takes precedence over the physical bombast of more recent war pictures. Suffering, loss, and moral ambivalence and ambiguity take top tier here. This film is, essentially, a charting of Caesar’s dark night of the soul. It is an unapologetically bleak exploration of the murky waters of war, evolutionary survival and the toll of violence. If that doesn’t sound like your average summer blockbuster then that’s because it isn’t supposed to, and the film makes this abundantly clear. If children start playing at apes in the playground, then teachers should start to intervene before they ruin their own childhoods and future happiness.
Everything about this film points to a different time of filmmaking. The pace, for one, is slowed right down (although admittedly this is a move that does occasionally leave the film feeling like its 2 hour 22 minute running time). There’s none of the quick flash-bang action of modern blockbuster filmmaking, and in fact, the film only has two real action set pieces, one of which happens mostly off-screen. Michael Giacchino’s score, too, is ripped straight from the original Planet of the Apes film, and successfully apes* Jerry Goldsmith’s atonal furies while adding the sparkle of a delicate piano over the top. Giacchino’s score is a marvel even if, at times, threatens to unbalance the film. Michael Seresin shoots the film with elegance too, showcasing wide vistas that allow the action to unfold within and using close-ups that let the audience inside the minds of these characters.
This is the first film in the rebooted franchise that rests solely upon the CGI shoulders of Andy Serkis as Caesar, as well as other ape performers Terry Notary, Karin Konoval and Michael Adamthwaite. The first two films of the rebooted franchise had the human presence of James Franco and Jason Clarke to balance the apes against, and War takes a brave leap by centering the film entirely around Caesar. It’s a gamble that pays off in spades. Andy Serkis delivers a performance at once furious, headstrong and heartbreaking. Steve Zahn, too, brings the film a little much-needed levity as an independent ape who takes on the moniker given him by his zookeepers, “Bad Ape”. Credit must go to the incredible artists at Weta Digital for rendering the apes with such breathtaking realism.
The meshing of CGI and performance in this film creates a new gold standard. Eyes that glisten, wet matted fur and tough leathery ape skin are all perfectly rendered in a way that compliments and enhances the individual performances of each actor. The characters who appear in the flesh are just as well-rounded. Woody Harrelson’s steely Colonel is a rational Darwinist and not a megalomaniacal killer. And young newcomer Amiah Miller gives the film its beating heart as young mute girl Nova (sadly one of only two female characters to have any kind of prominence in the film).
War For The Planet Of The Apes is a film that takes its time. It explores the personal and political ramifications of an opening act of war and follows them to their grimy conclusion. It besmirches its lead characters in guilt and confusion and presents them to the audience as is. The visual effects might be cutting edge but the storytelling would feel more at home amongst the films of thirty and forty years ago, rather than its immediate predecessors in this franchise.That’s no bad thing, but to go into the film expecting a fast paced adrenaline ride would be to leave oneself ill-prepared. Director Matt Reeves has crafted a spectacle of emotion that, while it contains some stunning pyrotechnics work, finds more wonder in the close up of a tortured face; a spectacle of war reflected in the whites of the eyes, not thrust thirty feet up in a column of flame. The bleak tone and slow pace of War For The Planet Of The Apes may require adjustment from the audience, but the film makes for a sobering and impressive spectacle once this is achieved.
War For The Planet Of The Apes is out now in UK cinemas. See the final international trailer below:
*Editor’s Note: Ape puns are the sole work of the named author.