By Jack Dignan
War takes many forms. It’s a battle of opposing sides, where even in victory there lies defeat. War arrives not just from unnamed soldiers shooting aimlessly at one another, but in more personal conflicts and morally corrupt situations too. Demons haunt. Violence never ends. But to achieve peace, a great cost usually comes with it. The Planet of the Apes saga, now eight films and one remake in, has reached the point of conclusion. A war has raged. It’s facing its dying days, but, as I said, wars come and go, and sometimes the biggest war faced is an internal one.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes left our hero Caesar (Andy Serkis) breaking one of his rules. He killed Koba, the villainous figure and catalyst for the human vs. ape war that followed. Apes don’t kill other apes, but that’s what has happened. It was a sin not even Caesar, the greatest of warriors, could overcome, and it haunts him. His guilt eats him up. But as a leader, he can’t let this be the case. The world he lives in is dark and unrelenting. Apes hide in the woods for survival, nurturing the young and protecting the others. Caesar didn’t start this war. It’s not something he ever wanted. And yet, the war comes for him.
The humans, now aligned with small handfuls of traitorous ape allies, are winning. They’ve discovered the location of the ape base, and have sent in troops to take them down and finish the war, but it’s not as simple as that. The apes have a plan. They fight back. Amidst their battle, Caesar breaks off from the group in search of The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), protected by a few of his friends, including the caring orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval). If rumours are to be believed, The Colonel has called in an army of reinforcements to help bring an end to ape-kind. With time running out, Caesar needs to either bring an end to the war or face extinction.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a grueling, grim and catastrophic finale to a trilogy that continues to expand upon its beloved source material. They’re prequels that have developed into their own self-contained world, unhinged from the hugely popular original films that made this franchise so great. They have their own set of rules. Anything goes, and anything does. It’s an epic and unnerving final chapter that’s as brutal as it is emotional, all while mixed in with undertones of American history. The world is so bleak and desolate, full of violence and danger, and director Matt Reeves crafts it to perfection. He has an immense understanding of the environment. It’s full of beautiful simplicity and gorgeous, snowy environments that thunder out into the encapsulating theatre experience.
Desolation surrounds our primary heroes, but they’ve learnt to accept it. Everyone’s seeking a better life, even that of Woody Harrelson’s villainous Colonel, but their methods and ideas are conflicting. The apes want to be left alone, whereas the human want to exist alone. We find our characters at their most distinct and emotional. They’re all broken, each learning to deal with a life of turmoil and despair, haunted by the wars of their past. Caesar, and equally the performance by Andy Serkis, grows stronger and strong with each new movie. He’s slowly developed into one of cinema’s finest protagonists, and the three-movie story arc ends on a satisfying note.
The titular adjective takes on many forms throughout, but the most jarring aspect may leave audiences somewhat disappointed. This is not an action film. There are really only three, maybe four sequences of action. It is, in similar fashion to newly released war epic Dunkirk, these characters doing their best to survive, guided by an equally memorable score. Shifting this focus more onto the character’s internal struggles than an external battle makes for an unexpected and painstakingly dark story that unfolds slowly, but surely. Most of the movie sees Caesar unwilling tied into a situation barely showcased in the trailers, none of which I had seen prior to watching this film. It’s a dire situation that proves to be his biggest, most challenging obstacle yet.
Matt Reeves tears Caesar down and pulls apart what makes a leader strong. His script, co-written by his ‘Dawn’ collaborator Mark Bomback, takes the franchise in a new direction while holding its foot firmly in the ground. At times, it feels reminiscent of what ‘Rise’ could’ve been, had it been set in the world of ‘Dawn.’ The characters are strong, and the direction even stronger. It’s one of the finest crafted movies of the decade. The fact that computer imagery can look this good is a technical feat I’ve waited my whole life to see. Ape design is indistinguishable from the surrounding world. There are scenes where I honestly couldn’t tell it was digital, but instead mistook it for a real world costume. Even in comparison to last year’s visually astounding Jungle Book, this steps things up a notch, and it’s some of the finest CGI ever put to film.
The digital artists blend everything seamlessly. It draws you in and leaves you in awe. An opening battle sequence had my jaw dropped, not just because of the gritty viciousness, but because there wasn’t a single flaw in any of the designs. And it only gets better from there. Third act close ups of a broken down, desperate to survive Caesar are simply astonishing. You’ve never seen CGI like this. It’s grand and epic, fitting in perfectly with the story that’s needed to be told. Having your primary characters all motion capture, with very little on screen humans in the first half, is a bold move, but Reeves and co. roll with it and they make it work. This is a franchise that’s been robbed of Oscars. It’s time that changes.
However, it’s not just the post-production team that makes these characters work. It’s the actors, too. From Lord of the Rings to The Hobbit to Star Wars to this, Andy Serkis proves time and time again that there’s no one better than him in the art of motion capture. He’s the man for the job, and his portrayal of Caesar has never been better. It’s understanding, dedicated and full of remorse. He allows for a greater appreciation of his character, elevating it beyond the written word and into a fully-fledged, human-esque character you’ll struggle to believe is anything but a real life ape. Serkis shares plenty of screen time with his ape counterparts, all of whom are terrific, but the human actors, forced to work alongside characters they can’t actually see, deserve just as much recognition.
Karin Konoval’s Maurice and Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape are absolute show stealers. Maurice takes on a more parental role here, family being a strong theme throughout, when she uncovers a mute girl named Nova (Amiah Miller). Their relationship is key, and both actresses deliver an accessible, moving performance all without very many words. On the contrary, Zahn is unable to shut up as the film’s star player, Bad Ape, who’s loveable from the minute he appears on screen. His past is tragic, but it shapes him into the ape we first meet him as, and every scene he’s or line he’s given is even more memorable than the last. Bad Ape brings levity to the depressing nature of the movie, but more than that, he ties the whole plot together in an exciting way.
There’s a lot to love in this final Apes movie. It’s uncompromising and brutal, which will scare away the younger audience, but this is a mature movie for mature viewers. The film pushes not just the characters to the edge, but its audience too, and it does so in the best fashion. War is the Return of the Jedi to Dawn’s Empire Strikes Back; a film that’s not *quite* as impressive as its predecessor, but amazing nonetheless.
4 1/2 Stars
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