Trifecta! It’s hard enough to make one good Planet of the Apes movie, as Tim Burton showed us in 2001, but Fox has now managed to deliver three in a row with the release of War for the Planet of the Apes. While this series may not get as much recognition as a latest superhero franchise films that crowd the multiplex, it’s proven to be consistently better than most of them.
A lot of the credit should fall to director Matt Reeves, who helmed the previous film, Dawn, and now this explosive finale; while tackling subject matter no less vital than the fate of humanity itself, he always manages to keep the focus on the characters.
That’s no small feat considering the lead characters are all animated creations: yes, this film has us rooting for the demise of mankind as we follow ape leader Caesar (played in motion capture by Andy Serkis) and his thriving society of primates against what appear to be the last remnants of mankind after a virus has wiped out most human life.
All Caesar wants is to live in peace, but those pesky remaining humans seem to care more about wiping out the apes than rebuilding their civilization. They’re led by a deranged Colonel played by Woody Harrelson, who delivers a climactic speech about needing to exterminate the apes to preserve humanity that may be seen as an uncomfortable race-relations metaphor.
The Colonel and his cronies have managed to round up most of the apes and force them into labor, building a wall in preparation for the rest of mankind’s remaining military establishment. Much of the second act of the film turns into a version of The Great Escape (The Ape Escape?) as Caesar and co. attempt to bust free.
Any description of the plot in these movies will sound silly, because not only are we talking about a series of films where mankind battles primates, but those primates are animated creations.
But one of the greatest assets to convincing special effects is good storytelling; when we’re invested in the characters and their journey, we don’t care how lifelike (or not) the objects onscreen are.
That’s exactly what director and co-writer Matt Reeves has achieved here. The effects work in War for the Planet of the Apes is state-of-the-art stuff (compare these apes to those cartoonish wide shots of Spider-Man in the latest Marvel film), but the more invested we become in the characters the less we care about the computer-generated graphics.
No surprises: for the third time in a row, Andy Serkis’ Caeser carries the film, and carries it incredibly; if ever a motion-capture performance will receive awards consideration, it’s Serkis here. But the supporting primates are also given a surprising amount of depth and nuance (the only other humans with significant screentime, meanwhile, are a young girl the apes run into along the way and a thinly-sketched commando played by Gabriel Chavarria).
Returning from previous films are characters like Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary); they’re joined by a new character played (and voiced) by Steve Zahn. Like Caesar, each of these characters is given a fully-realized, and surprisingly affecting, character arc.
But best of all might be the subtle portrayal of a gorilla, played by Ty Olsson, who fights on the side of the humans. Though he simply falls in line for most of the movie, we can feel the weight of the world on Red Donkey’s shoulders; he’s given the depth and care the human commando lacks here.
One complaint: the film’s big dramatic payoff sequences are unnecessarily strung out, wringing every ounce of emotion from what usually amounts to a single decision.
Many have praised War as the best in the new Planet of the Apes series, following Rise and Dawn. While that may be true, I’ve been especially impressed by the consistently high quality of each of these pictures, which have nevertheless seemed to fly under the radar.
In an era where storytelling is often the weakest factor in a big-budget blockbuster, here’s a rare film (and a series) that places its characters and their journey at the forefront while the state-of-the-art effects blend into the background.