Synopsis: After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. (Source)
At a time when shoddy sequels, superheroes and reboots are met with ire, War for the Planet of the Apes is a true rarity, a summer tentpole that breaks the mold and burns bright with incendiary purpose. Honestly, it’s shocking that something like this exists – it’s downbeat and somber, large portions of it are utterly hard to watch, and it eschews big action sequences for intimate character study. Building upon its predecessors, director Matt Reeves brings a number of narrative loose ends to fruition, driving home the series’ socially potent look at the line between human and animal, and if there even is such a thing. Sealing the deal are emotional performances from a killer cast and jaw-dropping visuals from VFX powerhouse, Weta Workshop. As far as I’m concerned, star Andy Serkis’ performance is the one to beat this year, contributing to a story that smartly nods to the past while forging a new future. While this isn’t the blockbuster film most may want, its the one we deserve, blending technical mastery with a story that rings with urgency amidst today’s divided world.
Nearly two decades after Simian Flu has wiped out most of the human race, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of intelligent apes have been forced into a war with humans which they didn’t start. Betrayed by one of their own, Caesar does his best to protect his kind and opt for co-existence, but war rages and a middle ground can’t be found. Hoping to turn the tide, Caesar spares the lives of some captured soldiers, hoping to send a message of peace, but it backfires, leading to a crippling personal loss. Desperate and with everything to lose (including the future of his species), Caesar engages in a desperate bid to hunt down the vicious Colonel (Woody Harrelson) of a ruthless military faction. Along the way, Caesar and a handful of his closest friends come across a young girl with a mysterious past (Amiah Miller) and hermit ape dubbed Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), but as they come closer to their goal, Caesar is torn between his rage and the mercy that he has always leaned upon.
Over the past two chapters, it’s been clear that this is Caesar’s story, and this smart perspective is what gives Reeves’ latest chapter its focus and precision. At this point, Caesar is a fully formed character full of pathos, a huge burden on his back, and now, an impossible choice. This is Caesar’s do-or-die moment, and the entire film is hinged upon his decisions as a leader and his actions as a father in the aftermath of a tragedy – what separates him from the violent, power hungry humans he’s fought to evade for so long, and will he finally give in to the same primal urges as his enemies? This powerful quandary is what Reeves wrings till the very last frame, exploring it in a series of intense character encounters that eschew physical violence for mental warfare. Cleverly, the real battles in this film are done as opposing sides stand up for ideology, engaging in a series of verbal and physical power struggles even as Caesar battles a crumbling mental state. Without diving too deep into the plot, let’s say that human and ape are more or less shackled together, with Reeves using shifting alliances to contrast both species’ and the idea that societies crumble from within – that we can’t remain strong or hope for peace if we can’t even understand the fears of our neighbors. Exploring our primal need for survival, the film treats us to an emotional rollercoaster that never pulls a single punch.
Just as the film’s predecessors, we can’t talk about this chapter without mentioning the synergy between performance and technology. Whereas we’re used to an overload of CGI filling our screens with global destruction and superheroic feats, Reeves and Weta have showed us that technology finds its place in service to story, and that nothing can really replace the performance of a real actor (at least not yet). There are moments here where you’ll swear these talking apes, with their mottled, weathered fur, the glint in their eyes and the weight behind their actions is absolutely real, and this tangible quality immerses us into the stakes with raw ferocity. That being said, the humanity behind these creations is fully apparent in the performances of each motion captured actor, with modern day master Andy Serkis leading the way. The man is a revelation, giving Caesar warmth, rage and everything in between. It’s his performance that invests us into Caesar’s emotional journey, as well as anchoring the film. Steve Zahn also steals every scene he’s in as Bad Ape, an unlikely ally with deadpan wit who gives the bleak film its only moments of respite, while Karin Konoval and Michael Adamthwaite give fellow apes Maurice and Luca, respectively, some life. On the human side, Amiah Miller adds grace as a young girl found by Caesar – I don’t dare spoil her role, but she bridges both ape and human with restraint. Lastly, Woody Harrelson oozes menace as The Colonel. In a way, he’s a scary vision of Caesar’s future, a reflection of someone who took a wrong turn with the best of intentions, making him an anti-villain who eschews the archetype.
War for the Planet of the Apes thrives through its accessibility, but offers an infinite amount of nuance and depth below the surface. The film is untethered by the messy, scattershot construction of most blockbusters because Reeves has a very specific story he wants to tell, and does so by fleshing out a character study with elegant gusto and aplomb. If you would’ve told me that a gritty, grounded Apes reboot would lead to one of our best modern trilogies, I wouldn’t have believed you, and yet here we are. Longtime Apes fans will love how the film links up with the original films, even while diverging, while just about anyone else would be hard pressed to walk out of this unaffected. At its core, War for the Planet of the Apes is the standard in blockbuster film, showing us what the genre can and should be. Though a return to the Apes saga can easily be warranted, Reeves has closed a significant chapter here, imbuing things with conscience and heart, exposing the toxic mindsets that keep us on a path to destruction, but also the strength that can be found in unity.