Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary
Run Time: 142 mins
‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is the third installment in the ‘Planet of the Apes’ reboot series, kicked off by ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ in 2011 and ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ in 2014. ‘Rise’ was one of my favourite films of 2011 and it was very intelligent and boasted superb visual effects. It came as a massive surprise after Tim Burton’s previous reboot had disappointed and it looked like the film was merely a cash grab. ‘Dawn’ received even more positive reviews but whilst I admired the craft behind it, I was disappointed in its surprisingly simplistic narrative. This film continues to follow Andy Serkis’ motion capture Caesar after the ‘Rise’ and ‘Dawn’ of the previous two films which ‘War’ neatly sums up in its opening to keep new audiences engaged. Caesar battles with a ruthless Colonel, played by Woody Harrelson who tries to secure Earth’s future for humans by eradicating the apes. The marketing team have been very elusive as to whether or not this is the closing chapter to a trilogy or whether or not this franchise will continue. Matt Reeves is back in the director’s chair after helming ‘War’ and I must say I was a little trepidatious as I have mixed views on him as a director. As mentioned, I found the story in ‘Dawn’ overly simplistic and he has previously directed ‘Cloverfield’ and ‘Let Me In’, the former being a particularly difficult film to engage with. What’s even more surprising is that Reeves has been attached to direct a new reboot of ‘The Batman’ following Ben Affleck’s departure which I am concerned about as I don’t think his style fits with the iconic superhero. With sterling reviews for ‘War’ again, it’s safe to say I was hesitant again as to what Reeves had done for this film.
‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is a welcome surprise – it’s grim, heartfelt, revenge-filled and most of all, questions its intelligent audience with multiple morality questions. It is perhaps the strongest of the series but I would need to rewatch ‘Rise’ again to be sure. Dialogue is rather scarce in this film and there are many prolonged sequence where the film is almost like a silent film and it is just stunning to behold. ‘Dunkirk’, another Summer release also tries to do this but this film succeeds better in this respect due to its stronger characters and more powerful overarching message. ‘War’ is at its best when it is uncompromisingly grim, the pain and loss felt by Caesar and the various nods to the Western and War genre.
The performances in this film are brilliant and Andy Serkis once again, makes his case for the benefits of motion capture. Serkis does his best work in this film as Caesar who is now capable of pretty much fluent English and he really conveys the pain and anguish felt by the devastation of his inner world. There are definitely echoes of Clint Eastwood here in his quest for revenge and also echoes of the war hero. Karin Konoval also does her best work here as Maurice, the orange-utan who in many ways reflects Caesar’s conscience. Steve Zahn is also excellent as a new character called ‘Bad Ape’ who provides comic relief and a lot of heart to the film. I had problems with the human characters in ‘Dawn’ who were rather one-note and hard to empathise with. Fully fleshed out human characters are rather scarce in this film but Woody Harrelson is excellent as the Colonel and is well-developed and at some points, even emphatic as we can sense where his point of view is coming from. There is no doubt this character channels the infamous Colonel Kurtz and Reeves even includes a couple of references to ‘Apocalypse Now’ to draw the contrasts. Amiah Miller as Nova (spot the reference?), a mute orphan who the apes pick up on their way to the Colonel is outstanding, managing to convey her emotions simply from body language.
Reeves’ characters certainly make an interesting character study and what allows this film to really succeed is its more intelligent narrative. My main problem with ‘Dawn’ was its obvious and predictable narrative with not all that much substance but there is certainly more meat to chew on here. If there are any flaws in this film, perhaps it is a little overly compassionate at times and it doesn’t quite reach the heights of ‘Rise’ in terms of its commentary on animal cruelty and suffering.
The score by Michael Giacchino is sublime here – it is extremely memorable and really elevates the material. Giacchino doesn’t just rehash his score for the previous installment, instead introducing many new themes to suit the different mood the film conjures and it’s clear that in his plethora of projects this Summer including the critically panned ‘The Book of Henry’ and the excellent ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming‘, it’s clear he’s put the work in here.
The cinematography by Michael Seresin is again brilliant after his work on ‘Dawn’ – the cold, harsh landscape feels so life-like and you can almost sense the wind breathing on the back of these characters. There are numerous shots which are simply awe-inspiring to look at and Seresin also knows when to hang onto a shot that is a little longer than comfortable. The action sequences are also refreshing in that he doesn’t just resort to numerous quick cuts.
Overall, ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is a work of art and Reeves has really developed as a director, particularly from an individual in the past whose films I have had some big problems with. The performances and narrative in this film are what really hold it all together and it is very cine-literate but not to the point of parodying. I still don’t think Reeves is a match for ‘The Batman’ but if he manages to evolve like he does with this film, it could be brilliant. It is one of the strongest films of the Summer and shows a lot of promise for the future of this material.