War for the Planet of the Apes Review

What makes for a great trilogy? I think about some of the all-time great franchises and wonder, what made them so memorable? Toy Story has genuine emotions, Star Wars was one of the first Sci/Fi Fantasies to embrace a nerdy premise. Lord of the Rings tells one of the most sweeping epics ever put to film, and The Corenetto films challenge the very idea of what a trilogy even is. I don’t know what the best trilogy of all time is, but what I do know is that the rebooted Planet of the Apes saga absolutely belongs in the discussion.

Director Matt Reeves returns to this smarter-than-it-should-be threequel, and again does a masterful job. He’s able to create such a clear, distinct tone, combined with the deliberately steady pacing, Reeves grabs you and never lets go. Another impressive quality to this film is how it, again, switches genre. The first one was an origin story, the second one a post-apocalyptic drama, and now we have an appropriately titled war film. This movie opens with a battle scene, and this action hits harder than anything else I’ve seen this summer.

That comes back to what I’ve been praising this franchise for since the start. Its characters are human, even when they’re apes. The violence in the war scenes is brutal, and not because it’s happening to animals, but because it’s happening to characters we know and care about. Under Reeves’ direction, this movie feels epic. I don’t say that flippantly, I really mean it. In size, scale, location, cast of characters, emotional heights, and dramatic stakes, this is truly a war epic.

Director of Photography Michael Seresin is back again, helping nail down Reeves intense tone, and my god, is this movie beautiful. Where as Dawn was largely set in a metropolis reclaimed by nature, War shifts it’s setting largely to the mountains and beaches of northern California. Seresin composes his shots with care and clear expertise. In the hands of others, the various cutaways to lingering shots of nature would come across as pretentious, but here they play perfectly and only further drive home the movies themes. There’s a shot in the trailer of soldiers belaying down a waterfall into Caesar’s home. The shot is sent up, its still, and then you can just barely make out the soldiers silhouettes. Where other cinematographers would have establishing shots and multiple angles to make sure everyone knows exactly whats happening, Seresin lets it all play out in one, long, beautiful take.

Also returning in the staring role is Andy Serkis as Caesar. I don’t know what I can say that hasn’t already been said about Serkis’ performance, but any praise thrown his way definitely deserves to be repeated. This is a different Caesar than we’ve seen in the previous two films, but still a recognizable one. Caesar has now fully grown in to his leadership role, and you can tell the confidence that Serkis now has. The heights that Caesar is taken too, from intense anger, genuine sorrow, brief moments of levity, and his passion for his people, Serkis may not have a shot in hell at taking home an Oscar, but dammit if he doesn’t deserve one.

The main reason for Serkis’ disadvantage at the Academy Awards is the use of performance capture CGI. The argument being that there is to much of a digital buffer between the actor’s raw performance and the final product we see on screen. While I disagree with that reasoning, I understand it. However, where this film does have serious contention to bring home a statue is its use of CGI.

This film has the best use of digital visual effects in history. Better than Avatar, better than The Jungle Book, and miles better than that average spectacle we see in summer blockbusters. If it doesn’t take home the Best Visual Effects statue, then in one single snub the Academy Awards lose all credibility. Most movies use their effects to simply dazzle us, to make audiences stare at the screen in amazement. And while I was amazed at what I was watching, that wasn’t the intended outcome. I was watching this film and its CGI-layered characters and I felt something. The visuals are utilized to make its viewer respond from a deeper place, one of raw emotion, not just wonder at spectacle.

Where as the last two movies have been dominated by Serkis, Caesar is joined this time around by a lovable band of apes. Maurice, the wise orangutang, gets a significant boost from the previous two films, and serves as Caesar’s moral compass on their journey. Rocket, one of the early antagonists from Rise, is now Caesar’s trusty right hand. Finally, newcomer to the franchise is Bad Ape, played delightfully by Steve Zahn. I won’t say much about Bad Ape, but what I will say is that he is an absolute joy to watch. It would be fair to say that in Rise & Dawn, much of the ape-emotion is given to Serkis, while the other apes play fairly simple roles; with Bad Ape, this is no longer the case. Watching Zahn, along with the other members of the ape squadron, we start to see more, fully fleshed out characters, not just a group of CGI creatures that surround the protagonist.

Also along for the ride is Nova, a young, mute girl, played by Amiah Miller. She’s serviceable, but I’m starting to get a little burnt out on the “quiet, badass little girl” trope we’ve seen recently with X-23 in Logan and Eleven in Stranger Things. That’s not a knock on her performance or the script, but it’s unfortunate that she’s overshadowed by others.

Woody Harrelson plays the films villain, and I think “villain” is the word that best suits his role. This franchise hasn’t seen an outright villain before. David Oyelowo and Brian Cox were certainly bad guys, but neither of them were really opposing Caesar in a direct way. And Gary Oldman was definitely an antagonist, but his motivations were absolutely justifiable, and in no way personal. Harrelson combines the worst of both worlds for a Colonel who is truly terrifying. He hates this new breed of apes, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to wipe them off the face of the planet. Harrelson see’s himself as God, a savior to humanity, and his performance is genuinely terrifying. There’s a rage resting just beneath the surface of The Colonel, and when Harrelson get to let loose, he’s magnificent.

I have two main criticisms about the film, but one of them is fairly spoiler-y, so I’ll save if for after I give my rating. The first real criticism I have is that of the score. Michael Giacchino (Star Trek, Super 8, LOST) is usually a great choice for any film’s composer, but I found his score distracting me from the film rather than enhancing my experience. The films visual tone is so serious and gritty, I was expecting a pounding score to match. Instead, Giacchino’s work here felt too light, at times almost goofy. This is a war film, hard-hitting, gritty, and not an ounce of sarcasm to it. The music betrayed this tone, one that Reeves, given the film’s non-human central characters, fought an uphill battle to create.

All said, this is a fitting conclusion to an incredible trilogy that came completely out of nowhere.  While I don’t think War is quite as good as Dawn, it doesn’t need to be. War told a great standalone story, and gave this trilogy a satisfying ending. Reeves, Serkis, and everyone else involved have done incredible work. I mean it when I say this trilogy belongs in the discussion for the greatest of all time. Hopefully, this franchise can serve as a reference to studios in the future. I.e., then they want to reboot a franchise, let a talented director get an equally talented cast to tell the story they want. Incredible things happen when that formula is allowed to play out.

Rating:  4.2 – Great

Spoiler Warning

My final criticism of the film, that I thought would be too much information given away, is that about halfway through, it takes a detour into a prison break style movie. It serves the story fine, but it did feel a bit like a rehash of old material. So much of Rise took place in an ape prison, that I was disappointed to see War go back to the well. Again, the prison break sequences fit well for this movie on its own, but it did feel a bit “been there, done that.”

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