There are resounding victories for director Matt Reeves in War for the Planet of the Apes. The most surprising is in completing a prequel/‘reboot’ of a beloved franchise that acknowledges its source sensibly while also standing up on its own hind-legs. Another striking success is the creation of an engrossing protagonist in the ape-leader Caesar, who not only is realised through breathtaking, photorealistic effects combined with Andy Serkis’ outstanding motion-capture performance, but in the slow, plausible growth of his character. Reeves’ final triumph lies in concluding Caesar’s arc in a film that while bleaker than his previous instalment, remains bold, compelling and solidly-made.
‘War has begun’ Caesar stated solemnly at the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Two years on, mankind’s military forces move closer and closer to killing the now mythic ape-leader who evades capture. Pursued by a particular merciless commander known only as the Colonel who leads the violent, fascistic ‘Alpha-Omega’ militia, Caesar decides to move his people out of his forest enclave to safer pastures. When the latest assault leads to tragic consequences for Caesar, his darker instincts surface as he decides to seek vengeance. Joined by a group of faithful apes, including his trusted soldiers Maurice and Rocket, Caesar sets out to bring ape-wrath to the Colonel’s forces. But his hubris and deep regret for killing fellow-ape Koba in Dawn emerge, unexpectedly endangering his people’s safety. The community’s mantra of ‘apes together’ is under its heaviest test, as the contagion that has devastated humanity continues to lay waste to man’s civilisation and their more compassionate impulses. With the world pivoting from one epoch to the other, Caesar must rise to this last challenge or face the end of all life on the planet.
The trilogy’s sense of scale has been an integral part of its success. Despite the global implications of its ‘Planet’ title, these films have concentrated on a specific group of apes in a specific time and place, which has made following their struggle for consciousness, communication and community more intriguing and realistic as it unfolded. What could have been an unwieldy ‘epic’ ,with its themes thrown wide in a planetary battle for supremacy, is more intense and thought-provoking by focusing on the microcosm of Caesar, his people and their plight. War continues on from Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Reeves’ own Dawn by not playing to convention. Despite its tense, moody opening that recalls Platoon, Apocalypse Now! and Full Metal Jacket with its ominous creeping camouflaged grunts under soaking wet ferns, Reeves and writer Mark Bomback have not designed an all-out war film. It is mercifully not a two hour and twenty minute fight sequence. Instead, Reeves draws from a variety of genres to influence his film’s shifting tone and landscape, from revenge-fuelled Westerns to harrowing prison-concentration camp drama, while foregrounding Caesar’s internal conflict as the significant driving force. For War, like its preceding instalments, is truly about the fight in Caesar’s soul and its consequences that affect the safety and self-determination of his people.
Serkis’ Caesar has completely sold this trilogy, his straight-backed, formidable profile suitably overshadowing the human actors. Even though this franchise has had good performances from the likes of James Franco, David Oyelowo and Gary Oldman, they have been utterly diminished next to Caesar. Even in spite of the now dated special effects from 2010, the character was quietly gripping as he grew from pacified pet to revolutionary leader. Coppola is an apt alusion (with ‘Ape-ocalypse Now!’ emblazoned across a sewer wall in a rather indulgent reference) as Caesar’s development in intelligence, ferocity and demand for respect recalls The Godfather’s Michael Corleone. Weta’s technical prowess has now produced a figure that is not only anatomically realistic, but whose cold, weary eyes and contemptuous sneer make Serkis’ motion capture performance a fully-rounded character. Caesar is more wizened here, his greying beard making him look closer to the biblical figures that his character rather obviously alludes to, but he still remains an utterly engaging presence on-screen. Despite his permanently furrowed brow and his deliberate, developing speech, so much thought and emotion emerges from Caesar’s face: he is assertive, reflective but also doubts his actions believably.
This plays off so well in the scenes with Harrelson’s mirroring colonel (even down to his frosted grey-beard). Harrelson’s performance avoids becoming too much of a Kurtz-ian, militant general stereotype- he is remarkably measured and icily calm as he stands in for humanity’s narcissistic pride that has reverted to ideas of racial purity and nihilism in the face of inevitable decline. The rest on the competing sides are less developed, with some weird if needed humour from Steve Zahn’s “Bad Ape” and Amiah Miller’s Newt-esque babe-in-the-ape-woods, but serviceable enough (though Ty Olsson’s traitorous gorilla Red has one of the most prolonged, overdone and foreseeable reconciliations that I’ve seen on-screen). There is also little fresh air from the stench of testosterone, as Reeves’ genre choices and characters are predominantly masculine- which didn’t have to be the case considering the presence of female Ape characters in the originals. It has been one of the significant, undermining choices in this trilogy- with females assuming subservient roles to their male counterparts in truly retrograde fashion. In his struggle against replicating man’s problems, dismantling patriarchy is clearly not on the agenda for Caesar’s new world.
As sections of Michael Giacchino’s mournful orchestrations recall Jerry Goldsmith’s ethereal original score and Michael Serisen’s biblical ‘fire and ice’ cinematography transitions to a more familiar, arid landscape, War for the Planet of the Apes reveals the trilogy’s most subtle strength. Without crippling deference or unimaginative imitation of its source material, Wyatt and Reeves have provided an appreciative but fresh interpretation of Schaffener’s iconic 1968 film. Brief references to missing spacecraft, horse-back riding apes and a devolving humanity have always been rather mischievously abound, though these have emerged organically rather than feeling shoe-horned in. As such, Reeves’ contribution has marked an unexpected but fortunate triumph in the evolution and revolution of the franchise.