If there was ever a franchise that embodied being better than it has any right to be, it would be the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy. Coming off Tim Burton’s disappointing 2001 remake, it would take a ten-year wait for Rise of the Planet of the Apes to revive the hallowed sci-fi series. Rupert Wyatt’s film detailing the origins of how exactly the Earth fell to our primate peers was a surprise hit that took modern sensibilities into account and painted the apes as sympathetic figures who were the victims of lab testing. The 2014 follow-up with Matt Reeves at the helm only upped the ante. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes truly was among the best films of the year and continued an unexpected streak of success. Before it had even been released, 20th Century Fox was so confident in Dawn that Reeves was signed on to direct a third movie. All of this has finally built to a crescendo, as hyper-intelligent ape Caesar’s story is concluded in the culmination of what has the potential to be one of the greatest blockbuster trilogies of all-time, War for the Planet of the Apes.
Andy Serkis has gone from being a supporting player in the first film to a co-lead in the second to now being the full-blown star of his third outing in a spandex suit. As always, he looks utterly ridiculous until computer wizardry renders him into a furry genius. The true brilliance of these movies lie in the acting of this man, who has cornered the performance capture market as his own, becoming an icon in his own right. The weight of the previous two films rests on the actor’s shoulders as he portrays a Caesar that has been battered with years of conflict, both with humans and enemy apes.
This incredible acting anchors the emotional storytelling. The emphasis being placed solely on the apes here is a bold move. The majority of the scenes revolve around Caesar and his comrades, with human characters serving as an exterior force. They are an all-enveloping antagonistic shroud. The strong thematic links between each entry in the trilogy, as well as the sequential three-act structure of the films, have now brought us to fully realised characters with a reason for audiences to be invested. The first film had sophisticated humans and primitive apes. The sequel demonstrated the growth of ape culture and the struggle of humanity to stay together. And now, audiences stand at the end of the road, with ape kind forming a self-sufficient civilisation and human beings reduced to spiteful aggressors. With Woody Harrelson’s menacing Colonel, the complex moral quandary of Gary Oldman’s Dawn villain disappears in the devolution of the human race (a theme which factors far more heavily into War‘s plot than it has done before).
Despite being sold as an outright action spectacle, War still maintains the tender character moments that have defined the series’ entries as some of the smarter big budget flicks of the last decade. Steve Zahn’s performance as “Bad Ape” is one that rivals the work of the almighty Serkis, with a character who is half comic relief and half tragic figure. As the only other mammal in the film who primarily communicates through speech, the interactions between Zahn and Serkis provide a fresh dynamic to what is now three movies’ worth of apes talking to each other in grunts and signs. The stoic, grumbling demeanour of Caesar is offset by the scattered vocal pattern of the jittery hermit, and in a heavy character-based drama, there are some moments of levity that can extract a laugh at the expense of “Bad Ape” looking the fool. The character-driven plot is essentially book-ended with two impressive action set pieces, but surprisingly, despite the promise of a war, there is less action present than in the film’s immediate predecessor. However, this is a move that allowed me to take in the journey the characters were on and bucked the tradition of every conclusion having to throw as much into the frame as possible, suffocating the intended impact of the story.
As Caesar wrestles with his own inner turmoil, particular elements that function well and not so well become apparent. The introduction of Nova, a human girl played by Amiah Miller, somewhat plays a part in the protagonist’s unnatural sentience and humanity being maintained as the world collapses around him. The main enemy of this film that I feel the need to talk about, though, has to be its length. I’m not against an epic sci-fi blockbuster nearing two and a half hours, but certain dialogue exchanges and entire scenes can veer into meandering territory. This is not as well-paced a film as the previous two, but it aspires to be more complex as it juggles the overarching narrative of a cohesive trilogy and the self-contained plot of the movie itself. This is a prime example of franchise filmmaking working against a director, as Reeves has been tasked with having to tell two stories within the confines of a single space. Caesar’s resolution and obsession with The Colonel are arguably at odds with each other, but that in no way invalidates the sheer ambition on display here.
So, what to make of War for the Planet of the Apes? As a fan of this franchise, I’m more than satisfied with what has been offered up here. The depths to which the world has sunk since Rise create a world that feels lived in and real. The performances (most notably from Serkis and Zahn) truly make me believe that these talking apes could plausibly exist, bolstered by the unsurprisingly pristine animation that has me unable to detect the CGI, as I’m convinced that what I’m seeing is the real deal. This is everything we could want from a part three and serves as a near perfect send off for Caesar and his tribe. And whilst this works as a stand alone film, every trilogy must be grouped together as a whole to ascertain the overall quality. Based on this, all I can say is movies…together…strong.
Thomas’ Score: 9/10