Directed By: Matt Reeves
Written By: Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback (inspired by the novel Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle and characters created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver)
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller
War for the Planet of the Apes is defiant in its refusal to conflate its simian characters and its humans. Even in the film’s most explosive, calamity filled set-pieces, writer director Matt Reeves keeps his eye fixed on character, fixed on maintaining the two sides of the coin as distinct. No character becomes faceless in light of the action, particularly impressive when one considers how easy that might have been given that War is the finale in this Apes reboot trilogy—in Rise the pieces were assembled, in Dawn the pieces were arranged, the next logical step would be for the pieces to collide. How easy to misplace politics and morality and personality on the backburner for just a passage or two in order to truly indulge the fantastically wild prospects of apes on horses clashing with a cutthroat human military. Undoubtedly there is much colliding in this film, but Reeves never has to dumb-down in order to achieve this—our sympathies remain sharp, the stakes tangible, the two sides crystalline, and as a result we find ourselves not merely behind, but actively willing one side, the side of the apes, to victory; the side which betrays our natural inclinations, so well defined, so aligned with them we are.
The centrepiece of our sympathies, indeed, the bedrock of the entire series, is Caesar- the leader of the apes and one of the most utterly compelling protagonists in all of cinema these past six years. The wonder of the character begins with his physical creation, an awe-inspiring fusion of CGI animation and motion capture, so life-like that the niggling knowledge that what we are seeing is in actuality the work of some technological wizardry, immediately dissipates. There’s no artificiality; every strand of hair, every crease in the skin, feels real. And the verisimilitude of the character doesn’t stop at the surface. Caesar is as three dimensional inwardly as he is in his physical rendering—rich in complexity, in emotion, so often torn; much of the war hinted in the film’s title is located within Caesar as he attempts to suppress his primal tendencies. In Rise we saw our protagonist grapple with his identity, wavering between his duel origins, the human world in which he grew, and the ape world to which he naturally belongs. In Dawn we saw Caesar struggle to reconcile diplomacy and his devotion to his fellow apes, conflicted in his having to dilute one to satisfy the other. Now Caesar must manage his own feelings of hate and anger, that which he maligned in his once friend Koba from earlier instalments, less they pollute his utilitarian philosophy. As the feud with the humans intensifies, Caesar’s decision making becomes fallible. He’s noble, yet increasingly rash and hot-headed, struggling to divorce his wants from the needs of the group; he is, in other words, rather human.
War opens with a scene, aptly, of jungle warfare. A human military, not content to live concurrently with the apes, march as though they’re on eggshells towards the now mythic Caesar’s camp. Aided by gorilla defectors referred to as “donkeys”, the human army happen across a collection of Caesar’s apes— bullets and spears promptly fly at a frenetic pace, director Reeves never shying from the grizzly aftermath of such a confrontation, culminating the passage with the nasty visual of a waist-high pile of simian corpses.
Leading the violent human agenda is The Colonel, a mythic figure in his own right, played by Woody Harrelson. Harrelson is reliably solid, even if he does borrow rather liberally, as do Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback in their crafting of the character, from Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. Harrelson’s Colonel—head shaved, tucked away in the recesses of the jungle, leading a near savage army of men who appear to be under the force of hypnosis, spouting existential monologues to the man, in this case ape, to whom his fate has become inextricably linked, doesn’t so much as refer to Brando’s work in Apocalypse Now, as he does replicate it, tweaking it slightly by adding the hawkish sensibility of that same Coppola classic’s Sergeant Kilgore.
In this respect, the evocation of Vietnam, War for the Planet of the Apes finds itself something of a companion piece to Jordan Vogt-Robert’s simian based blockbuster from earlier this year, Kong: Skull Island. However, whereas that prior revisiting of a primate classic left its call-backs more in the background of the action, Matt Reeves has a tendency to overstate his allusions, at one stage literally spelling them out, the words “Ape-ocalypse Now” graffitied across the wall of an underground tunnel.
These flickers of overstatement are emblematic of that which keeps War from reaching the heights of its immediate predecessor, the earthy and grounded Dawn of the Planet of the Apes—a tendency to paint with broad emotional strokes and too often force sentiment and melodrama out of the narrative. The benevolent and mute Nova (played Amiah Miller) is a case in point, an orphaned child who Caesar and his most trusted devotees, Maurice, Rocket and Luca, pass as they embark on their own, Ford-ian cross-terrain mission to hunt down The Colonel, Nova serving merely as a twee canvas for the apes’ goodwill. It’s not necessary, these qualities had been made apparent in the film’s politics and action, and it’s a notion over-articulated further in the film’s weepy third act. These are more nagging grievances than detriments however.
Of course, it would be remiss to gloss over the film’s action sequences, of which there are many. Reeves’ action is explosive, hard-hitting, unflinching, and of a broad enough scope to satiate the blockbuster mandate. There’s also a sense of adventure to War, the film at one stage transitioning into an entertainment that’s closer to the likes of The Great Escape, after many of the apes are captured and enslaved, than it is to the bleak, aforementioned works of Coppola. Steve Zahn’s comical primate known only as Bad Ape, adds further flickers of respite to the otherwise gritty drama. Even in indulging these more traditionally “blockbuster” elements however, Reeves is sure to never entirely give himself over to them. War’s eye for character is undeterrable, to dwell so much on Caesar and co isn’t to suggest that the film lacks that which is gestured towards by the first word of its title, just to say that these sequences when they do come are anchored in something more personal.
Much of this gravity should finally be attributed to Andy Serkis, whose performance far exceeds the mere physical mimicry of a simian slouch. Despite being so thickly veiled in what the performer refers to as digital makeup, Serkis is able to instil true pathos in Caesar, the actor’s distinctly human expressions somehow finding their way through the dense forest of effects. “My God, look at your eyes, almost human” The Colonel remarks of Caesar—therein lays the brilliance of Serkis—naturally the CGI is of great profit, but it’s Serkis who brings a dose of recognisable humanity to a character so often defined by his lack of human agency. It’s the apes’ film in the end, Caesar’s film, and so it should be. In movies, a war is only as arresting as the character’s that fight in it.