War For the Planet of the Apes is a truly remarkable piece of “summer blockbuster” filmmaking. To the point where I do wonder what summer audiences, used to pretty colors and explosions, will think of this deliberately paced, often meditative story about not just the end of humankind, but also the end of the human spirit. In other words: This is not a movie you come out of feeling good.
I can imagine, for some, this might be a tougher watch than the previous two installments of this still surprisingly great Apes series. War is by far the most ambitious of the three films, but it’s also the most purposefully challenging because we are now fully embedded with the apes. Gone are the James Francos and Jason Clarkes: humans who had good-hearted agendas and, like Caesar (Andy Serkis), didn’t want a conflict. There are no human beings like that in War For the Planet of the Apes. Led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), every human in War (save one non-speaking child, who serves a different purpose) has been mentally and emotionally poisoned to the point of no return. In this third chapter, humans are portrayed as universally cruel. You will wait and wait for one human being to come to his or her senses and do “the right thing,” but that moment will never come.
War For the Planet of the Apes almost feels like the wrong title, as there’s probably more out and out “war” in the previous entry, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Still, this film opens with a human-led assault on the apes. The apes fend off the attack, taking a few prisoners. Caesar (we’ll talk about Serkis in a bit) wants this war to end and be left alone, so he releases the prisoners as a gesture of goodwill, hoping the Colonel will just leave them alone. Of course, this backfires and The Colonel, now armed with the location of Caesar, leads a stealth attack, in the hopes of assassinating Caesar. The Colonel mistakenly kills someone close to Caesar instead, sending Caesar off an emotional cliff, now gripped with a lust for blood and revenge. Caesar is slowly becoming his former nemesis, Koba.
The great majority of War For the Planet of the Apes takes place in a prison war camp for apes, run by The Colonel. While Caesar and a few of his closest allies are off looking for The Colonel, The Colonel has captured the rest of Caesar’s tribe. Now Caesar and what’s left of his team – which now includes a young human girl who cannot speak (Amiah Miller) and longtime Apes fans know what that means; and a stray ape from a local zoo named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) – must devise a way to rescue his tribe. This is less a war movie than it’s an “escape from prison” movie. A more accurate title might be The Great Escape of the Planet of the Apes.
These Planet of the Apes movies are remarkable – with this third one leading the pack. It’s a 50-year-old franchise, that already suffered through one failed reboot, that’s gone on to become one of the best-made action franchises of this decade. People (like me) who had no real attachment to the prior Planet of the Apes franchise have been won over by just essentially stellar storytelling and filmmaking — especially with what Matt Reeves has done with these last two films.
And then there’s Andy Serkis’ Caesar. His portrayal (and the added effects that complement his portrayal) has become so good that he can literally be the main character now. Think about that: a CGI ape is the main character of a summer tentpole and, while watching, you don’t even think about it. Obviously Caesar had a large role in the prior two films, but he wasn’t the lead actor.
Serkis has been mentioned in the past as someone who should be recognized by the Academy Awards for his acting ability while doing this motion capture work. War For the Planet of the Apes will solidify that argument – because Caesar carries this film and that doesn’t happen without Serkis. Serkis’ Caesar is much more human than any human character. (Of course, this will never happen. But Serkis does give what will be one of the best acting performances of the year.)
The War For the Planet of the Apes is less “action movie” (though there are some explosions) and more a meditation on the definition of humanity. It’s extremely ambitious and I almost can’t believe it exists. The first film was from the human standpoint. The second film gave us a fairly nuanced look at both sides. Now this third takes us all in with the apes as the main characters. And it somehow works. It’s actually heartening to know that “summer blockbuster”-type movies like this can still be made.
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