Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes”

5 out of 5 stars.

With an abundance of computer-generated characters populating most modern movies, pushing for realism seems to be the goal of most studios.  Too often are viewers taken out of a movie, however briefly, by characters and effects that are realistic, but not realistic enough to exist seamlessly with the real people and environments depicted in their films.  Even more often, and especially with blockbuster movies, do films bombard audiences with a barrage of effects that ultimately detract from, rather than enhance, the movie’s visuals.  However, Fox’s “Planet of the Apes” reboot, with effects by Weta Digital, has been consistently praised for its realistic CG ape characters, most notably the series’ main character, Caesar, portrayed in motion capture by Andy Serkis.  The previous two films in this series, particularly 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” are both fantastic.  But with “War for the Planet of the Apes,” which seems to conclude the trilogy, at least for the moment, we are no longer looking at Caesar and his ape buddies as effects.  They are living, breathing beings, and it makes this smart and surprisingly poignant story all the more powerful.

Matt Reeves, who helmed the series’ middle entry, “Dawn,” returns as director and co-writer of this film, set some time after its predecessor.  Caesar’s ape clan is attacked by a human military faction known as Alpha-Omega.  They are led by a man known as the Colonel (Woody Harrleson), and aided by some apes like the gorilla Red (Ty Olsson), who led a failed coup against Caesar in the previous film alongside the now-deceased Koba.  Caesar decides that the apes should move in the aftermath of this attack, but they are invaded again in the night, and the Colonel kills Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and older son Blue Eyes.  This prompts Caesar to send the rest of the clan away to find a new home while he goes after the Colonel, alongside three other apes: the gorilla Luca, the chimpanzee Rocket, and the orangutan Maurice.

War for the Planet of the Apes
Caesar, brought to life via motion capture in an astounding performance by Andy Serkis

While it sounds like just another revenge story, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is so much more than that.  Caesar’s quest may sound selfish on paper, but it isn’t; as always, he puts everyone else before him, but he also gets to go on a very personal journey here that serves as a fitting conclusion to his character’s arc.  Serkis has received so much acclaim in the past for his performances in this role, but in this film, he is truly a revelation, taking Caesar through everything from love to rage to hope.  He brings to the surface all of this non-human character’s human qualities in the most beautiful, expressive way possible, as do his costars.  Karin Konoval returns as the wise Maurice, who plays an especially important role in advising Caesar here, helping to keep his anger in check, while Steve Zahn brings in an element of fun as Bad Ape, a newcomer to Caesar’s group who meets them on their journey.  This film doesn’t have the amount of complex human characters that the previous film did, but that’s okay.  It’s basically Harrelson’s show, and he brings it all to the table.  His character is chilling and obviously disturbed, but there’s a snippet of sympathy to be found in him, however small, particularly when he talks about how the Simian virus that has wiped out most of humanity is started to render the existing humans on the planet mute (a trait that fans of the original “Planet of the Apes” film will recall).  One of those mute humans is a young girl named Nova (Amiah Miller), who also joins the apes on their journey, as Maurice refuses to abandon her.  As so much of the story revolves around the struggle between humans and apes, the sweet and innocent Nova serves as a bridge between the two worlds.

The “Apes” movies have improved their already impressive visual effects with each film, and “War” is nothing short of stunning.  As mentioned before, the characters really do achieve a level of reality that makes it easy to forget that you are watching digital characters, and that those apes aren’t really living and breathing beings.  It’s an admirable feat that most movies don’t quite succeed at accomplishing (think about the CG Grand Moff Tarkin in “Rogue One,” for instance).  Here, the computer-generated apes blend seamlessly with the human actors.  On top of that, the sets (green screen or not) and cinematography is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, as the characters pass through murky woods to sunlit beaches to the bleak, snowy mountains.  The setting appropriately changes with the mood of each scene, which, though occasionally light, is often bleak—if you’re looking for a blockbuster in which the characters get some comic relief, look elsewhere.

But that’s one of the great things about these movies.  They are very serious, but not in a way that leaves the viewer thirsting for something lighter.  The action scenes are spaced at just the right intervals throughout the film, and never get overwhelming.  Much of the idea for the story is derived from 1973’s “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (the final of five films in the original series), but overall this story is different, and, I must say, a lot better.  And I said this about “Dawn” when it came out, and I’ll say it again here: this movie achieves a level of depth and realism in the development of its characters that most movies in general, let alone other blockbusters, don’t even come close to.  With its depictions of slavery, and references to everything from the Bible to other classic films, “War” is not even remotely subtle, but it is smart, and proves that big budget films can be both intelligent and entertaining.  It’s powerful in a way that you wouldn’t expect from a film about smart apes, and surprisingly poignant moments between the apes are sprinkled throughout the film, leading up to the emotional but not-too-overdramatic finale, which is filled equally with sadness and hope.  This series always receives positive notices from critics and audiences, but its acclaim never reaches a level where everyone is talking about it, or where the films are noticed come awards season.  It’s high time that changes, and that people start to look past the fact that most of the characters in this film are created through motion capture and computer effects because that, like it or not, is where the future of film is headed.  And because Reeves, Serkis, and the rest of the cast and crew have crafted the best possible conclusion to one of the best contemporary film trilogies in existence.

Runtime: 140 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

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