Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

A great cap to an understated modern trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes is surprisingly amusing despite largely being drama, and is led by another unsurprisingly great performance from Andy Serkis.

A few years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the first smart ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) has withdrawn his community of primates further away from civilisation, but developments affecting humans left alive prompt an attack and the involvement of the Alpha Omega special forces, led by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson). Caesar’s attempt to get beyond reprisal and balance revenge with the apes’ struggle and the no-holds-barred reactions of the desperate humans, as they come to blows.

Despite what the title may say, there’s not a lot of war here. But then again, Rise and Dawn highlight the fact these movies are more cerebral blockbusters, more thoughtful and insightful. Without wanting to sound too psychological, it’s the conflict within Caesar (and to an extent the Colonel) that gives the film its war, though there is a step up in action towards the end in ways you might not expect. The movie also begins with a tense and ominous action scene full of surprises, just in case you wondered how much there actually is.

Story is king here, and I felt the script from director Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback was great, taking on the overarching plots and themes of the other films and bringing them to a fitting conclusion. The apes’ lack of knowledge of the outside world is slowly but surely addressed, and the changes humans are facing up to go a long way towards humanising them and their motives, no matter how drastic.

Caesar’s journey didn’t conclude as I expected (in some ways), but did in others, and the pressure of leading, setting an example and taking the apes towards a better future were and are surprisingly dramatic as well as thoughtfully explored. A masterstroke here was to inject humour (mostly through the Bad Ape character), and while this can at times feel a little oddly placed, by and large it helps balance out the bleaker elements and makes for a more rounded feel.

Reeves (who directed Dawn and is set to direct the new Batman) once again takes cutting edge special effects, a strong story and amazing natural landscapes to create a visually stunning, emotionally strong movie. I can’t credit him enough with the success that this series has seen, as his decision to take the effects out of the studio gifts the films with a spectacular sense of place and mood – this episode incorporating snow, lush forests and post-apocalyptic ruins.

Much credit must also go to Michael Seresin’s lighting work, which has the multiple challenges of illuminating multiple and complex outdoor, natural landscapes as well as ensuring the special effects fit into each scenario. His work in the early scenes (filled with gloom, lush forest greens and eerie smoke) is impressive enough, but the apes’ journeys onto the coast and into the snow are jaw-dropping visually.

On the effects, I have to say that while Serkis’ Caesar is as always the main attraction, the level of detail on kindly orangutan Maurice is nothing short of stunning, while the film’s gorillas are certainly a cut above the remainder of the chimps, who effects-wise are surprisingly short-changed. I guess this was an attempt to distinguish Caesar from them, but it detracts from the great work done on other “featured” monkeys and creates a disparity. This is probably my main complaint!

A special mention should go to the intriguing and surprising soundtrack from Michael Giacchino, whose score starts off ominous and very tense, but develops quite soon after into a facsimile or knowing imitation of (having seen it a few times) the original Apes film soundtrack. It jars a little to start but somehow works, and helps leaven the tense and often grim sides of the movie, perhaps preparing the viewer for a future that will no doubt start to fill in more gaps between War and Charlton Heston’s astronaut.

Serkis is unsurprisingly excellent, continually redefining what it means to give a acting performance, his mannerisms captured and seamlessly imprinted onto the CGI Caesar. His voice and way of speaking are carefully developed further (as ‘patient zero’ essentially, he has developed faster than the rest of the primates), and the actor remains unbeaten in utilising this technology and giving its creations heart and soul.

Of the other apes, Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape is a new character responsible for much of the humour, and Zahn’s innocent, wide-eyed performance is another masterful combination of actor and effects. He gets pretty much all the laughs and injects a vein of humour that helps to puncture tension, giving the quirky ape an inquisitive and naive air as he slowly develops into a social animal. Karin Konoval once again brings a softness and a stillness to Maurice, her considered performance showing through and building on the spectacular CGI.

Harrelson’s colonel is an excellent villain for this storyline and series, appearing first to be another gruff military psycho but slowly (and expertly in a standout head-to-head with Caesar) opening up, showing his complexities and surprising motivations. In this and later scenes the actor is brilliant, bringing a mix of unhinged righteousness and a stab of humanity to what could have been a stereotypical role.

Finally, young Amiah Miller caps off the featured cast as the young girl ‘Nova’, whom the apes save and integrate into their party as they venture north. The actress has to do twice as much work having no dialogue, and is brilliant particularly in some of the more emotional scenes, getting across Nova’s youth and her simple, loving childish nature – regardless of being a different species to her new friends.

War… tops off this Apes trilogy but by no means concludes the saga should there be more films. I think it’s an excellent blockbuster, and that we will miss the thoughtful, insightful nature of the trilogy – yet another example, from effects to acting and plot, of brave and considered film-making.

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