“War for the Planet of the Apes” had me worried. With the first word in the title and the average trilogy’s tendency to up the ante in all the wrong ways, I expected something brash, bloated and focused on the macro. I expected a collision of man and ape in which bodies are tossed like ragdolls with indifference to the lives inside, and all for the sake of spectacle. A “big finish,” you might say.
But this film is not that. Instead, Matt Reeves, director, makes the brave decision to pull the reins and look inward. Caesar, who’s more of a Moses, is once again our protagonist. He’s the same natural born leader as before, but the years of bearing the weight of his people’s strife have turned his hair grey and his patience thin. Despite Caesar’s best efforts, peace with the humans becomes more of a pipedream with every passing day, especially with the arrival of a hostile military faction led by Woody Harrelson. In one of their assaults, Caesar suffers a major loss and, consequently, sets out on a path of revenge—a detour located on a rail-less, icy cliff, proverbially speaking. For the first time, it’s not about something as grand as the fate of the planet; it’s about scratching an itch.
It’s been said before, but these “Apes” films are a perfect example of how special effects can enhance the experience, rather than distract from it. They’re able to take the audience deeper into the characters and add a layer of storytelling that didn’t previously exist. Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar, has received many accolades for his pioneering work in motion capture, but in this film, given Caesar’s intellectual advancement, he’s actually able to cut back on the grunting and deliver some complete sentences, which is nice.
But if you’ve seen the previous two films, “Rise” and “Dawn,” you already know about the impressive visual effects. So, what’s different? There’s a silent, emotional honesty that runs through “War”—something that wasn’t found in its heavy-handed, self-serious predecessors. Instead of making this a big picture film, Reeves makes it a collage of small, but equally meaningful pictures. The apes are more human than ever, and each is distinct, with his or her own hopes and fears. A few new friends are assembled during Caesar’s travels, one being Bad Ape, an endearing version of Jar Jar Binks, and the other being Nova, a big-eyed, mute, human girl, who acts as an innocent witness to the self-inflicted turmoil of the grown-up world.
The turns the story takes are best left unsaid, so they may surprise you as they surprised me. I’m not talking about plot twists, but of entire plot directions. “Death Wish,” “The Great Escape” and, most obviously, “Apocalypse Now” all spring to mind in varying degrees. In regards to the latter, Harrelson is in full, mumbling Brando mode and his battalion has Vietnam-esque writing on their helmets—one reads “Bedtime for Bonzo.” I hope there’s a medal for creativity.
For something called “War for the Planet of the Apes,” this movie is notably gentle, both in its pace and its content. The fact that Matt Reeves is able to extract so much emotion and gravitas out of a premise that begs to mocked is admirable, and not unlike the accomplishment of the original, 1968 film.
4 out of 5 stars