“Caesar and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel. After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.”
That synopsis released by 20th Century Fox describes a movie released sometime by someone, but it doesn’t describe this movie. And that, I imagine, is part marketing and part not really knowing what they’ve got. This film, and trilogy to a wider extent, deserved more than the studio gave it, it’s that good. As of this writing, this film is the best of the year.
The poster carries the tag, “Witness the End…” which is true to a point as individual narratives are spent but the film plays more like a genesis as the world presented to us in Mathew Reeves vision is so broken down and disassembled in so many ways, there’s really only way to go, forward. The new world motif is strong in this one. In fact, I kept waiting for someone to hold up a work boot with a plant growing in it.
This second effort by Mathew Reeves, third in the series, brings us to places most of us would rather not go nowadays with so much dour in the world. As much as Wonder Woman took us to a place of hope, virtue and love, very effectively I might add, War for the Planet of the Apes goes futile and dark in a hurry and toils in the deep end of irreverence. Both sides enjoy equally devastating losses throughout, making it hard to pick a winner, but where other directors would lose sight of the emotional weight of these losses, Reeves nails it each and every time.
War, being the key word in the title, is very present as the violence in this entry is treated with very little levity, being brutal at times and oddly poetic at others. The intelligence and care with which Reeves and the rest put into the action sequences is equal to the quieter expositional moments which give this film more balance than can be remembered in recent memory.
The Ape’s trilogy has provided us with one of the greatest characters and character arcs in the last 30 years with Caesar, played by the unbelievable Andy Serkis. It’s been said already but Serkis undoubtable deserves an award for his work, if his work doesn’t fit some bullshit award paradigm, then make one up dammit! He reaches new levels of despair here more human than, well, any human could.
As Casaer struggles with his own mortality and the survival of his species, he’s faced by a new yet familiar human threat in Woody Harrelson. Familiar, because he’s faced the ire of humanity his entire life, new, because he’s never met someone with such a cold narrow determination. It’s the battle of not just physicality, but wills which dominates the narrative. Each oddly enough fighting for exactly the same outcome, speciesism.
Harrelson is up to the task playing the mostly nameless the Colonel, which is appropriate since there’s very little backstory for him. Keeping his intentions clear but his lineage ambiguous is smart in a lot of ways. It keeps the point of view on Casaer and any potential sympathies where they should be, on the side of the apes. He along with his righteous army play the part of the cleansing master race not unlike the great plains battles, the Christian Europeans or the Romans.
And the religious dogma is front an centre here almost blatantly in some cases but more settle in others. It’s not a shame to admit you’re dismayed at the behaviours of these “Christians” as clearly Reeves finds no redemption in telling this story. In fact when another group of separate human factions enters the picture, it certainly feels like a cleansing of biblical proportions right down to a avalanche serving as the modern day flood, favouring the truly just (apes) and wiping out the unjust (humans).
The best cinematographers in the business can make bleak seem beautiful and Michael Seresin has done it, twice now in fact. By toying with shot structure like an orca with a baby seal, he seems to be achieving master class stuff here with lingering moody images rarely seen that other tent pole summer films fumble each and every time. His work here is something to behold and its no surprise Andy Serkis has employed him for his Jungle Book remake and I wouldn’t be surprised if his name shows up on The Batman roster either.
The Weta workshop folks have once again performed their magic as you would have to prove to me some of those apes weren’t real. There’s a moment between Maurice and Nova that involves mostly close-ups where the details in Maurice’s face are absolutely stunning and so life like it’s impossible to think you’re watching something generated by computers. I thought I was done marvelling at CGI, but yet here we are again.
Michael Giacchino, who’s scoring just about everything these days, captures the highs and lows beautifully without drawing too much attention away from the energy of the scene. He clearly knows that it’s easier to detract from a scene with music than it is to add to it, and that is a sign that he and Reeves employ a very clear line of communication and vision.
My Apes’ preview a month ago indicated the Nova character would be one to watch out for but I had no idea the levity she would add to the plot and conclusion of the film. Without any dialogue she manages to emote her intentions and provides enough causation that words seem unnecessary. In a mostly colourless world, she provides the few splashes of colour and they tip their hand a bit each time making the importance of those moments more than simply visceral.
The other new addition to the cast, simply called Bad Ape (you’ll see why), provides a fresh ape character trope that we haven’t seen much of in this trilogy, humor. While he clearly is there to remind of us past sins committed by man, he’s there to inject some humor, albeit somewhat misplaced on occasion but only due to the ferocity of the subject matter.
These new characters along with dependable old Maurice, Luca and Rocket each are living reminders of the different dimensions of Caesar who, make no mistake about it, is the star and a great one at that. Each one reminds us that Caesar is an incredible dense character who shows a full range of emotions in this film.
This marks the end of the Caesar arc but definitely leaves room for more stories to be told, and if you pay close enough attention, there are a few tip of the hats to the original Planet of the Apes indicating we will see more from this particular group.
Matt Reeves is moving on to other things but Andy Serkis, who’s already directing a Jungle Book reboot would be the ideal choice to carry this franchise forward as he’s been in a unique position, a front row seat almost, to the evolution of this world.
This film’s narrative isn’t muddled with too much exposition and soars with its clear social construct while being technically impressive and viscerally exciting. If only all movies spoke as much with so little.
Best film of the year…so far.
Till next time.