thanks to DanielSTL via Flickr
The first two Planet of the Apes prequels – Rise and Dawn – have been that rare thing for a summer blockbuster – smart, philosophically rich films that don’t hurl needless action scenes at its audience every 15 minutes for fear their minds will wander.
The concluding part to trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes, continues that tradition admirably. In fact, this must surely be one of the most consistently high-quality film series in memory. It doesn’t hurt that the special effects are so dazzlingly brilliant that you quickly forget you are even watching effects at all, and not armies of trained simians hitting their marks perfectly for the cameras.
We pick up a couple of years after Dawn, with the conflict sparked by troubled ape Koba having escalated to full on war, at least in the part of the USA the film focuses on. The apes are encamped in their wood, still led by the noble Caesar (a brilliant Andy Serkis, bringing astonishing depth to his motion-captured performance). Meanwhile a battalion of surviving humans, under the command of the enigmatic and brutal Colonel (Woody Harrelson), and ravaged by the virus that has nearly wiped them out, are intent on wiping the apes out before they become the dominant species. While Caesar attempts to broker one last peace deal, the Colonel makes a pre-emptive strike that leaves the ape leader devastated and desperate for revenge.
For a film with ‘war’ in the title, there is relatively little full on combat filling the screen. When those scenes come they are tense, disturbing and well-staged, but the real wars raging here seem to be within – particularly the one Caesar is fighting for his own soul. Some might feel a bit short changed at the lack of bombastic battle, particularly in the middle section of the film, but it is nice to see the movie chart a path away from the obvious. There is, after all, more to war than exchanging gunfire and the film grapples with some uncomfortable questions, leaving troubling ideas and imagery in its wake. Parents should be warned – this is pretty hard 12A and while gore is thin on the ground, some gruelling moments lie in wait.
This is no feel good film – we are pretty far down the road to the end of the world as we know it, after all, and at some point the narrative will lead to the apocalyptic vision confronting Charlton Heston in the 1968 original. But there is a peppering of humour throughout, thanks mainly to new character Bad Ape (played by Steve Zahn), a chimp with a keen dress sense and who represents the idea that other advanced ape civilisations are out there too.
The effects are glorious. The apes are rendered in such detail as to be utterly convincing – they don’t even need traditional human dialogue, so expressive are their faces. It’s Andy Serkis who carries the film – his haunted eyes and world-weariness are genuinely affecting. It’s an incredible achievement both for the actor and for the Weta digital effects house who bring Caeser to vivid life.
The film wears its war movie influences on its sleeve, perhaps a little too heavily. One piece of graffiti states ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’, just to hammer the point home, while Harrelson’s Colonel clearly owes a debt to Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in that classic Vietnam film. There’s nothing wrong with the odd cine-literate reference, of course, but that particular one is pushed a bit too hard. In a film as intelligent and inventive as this, it seems unnecessary. Harrelson is never anything other than great value, however and he finds unexpected notes in his character– the Colonel may be a monster, but he’s a recognisably human one.
Where the franchise goes to from here, if more films are to come, is anyone’s guess – this cleverly conceived world, on its way to becoming a proper Planet of The Apes, still feels rich with possibility, particularly now the apes are realised well enough to carry the movies by themselves. The stories so far have carried enough plot quirks and detours to make them far more intriguing than the average unnecessary prequel. But, if this should be the end for this particular incarnation of the apes, then War draws the curtain on the apocalypse in fine style.