When you’re watching a film that is, essentially, a battle between apes and humans, and you’re rooting for the apes, you know the filmmaker has done something right. That filmmaker is Matt Reeves and the ‘something’ he has done right is a trilogy that ranks right up there with the greatest of all-time. It’s certainly the most consistent franchise in existence right now and War for the Planet of the Apes closes out his trilogy with the sort of accomplishment and energy that almost seems too good to be true. When so many franchises get mired down in missteps, it’s inconceivable to find three films that never miss a beat. Rise was the heart of the franchise – the emotional center. Dawn was the brain of the franchise – the big themes and ideas. War is very much the braun – the brute force of conflict and resolution. It’s hard to even remember how James Franco and John Lithgow figured into this whole thing back in Rise. So much has happened to these characters since then. And we are all the better for it.
War finds Caesar and the apes living in forest, hiding as best they can and attempting to avoid humans at all cost. They still aren’t seeking war and just want to survive. Early on, when Caesar sends some soldiers away unharmed, he hopes it will be a signal that they don’t mean harm to humans. Unfortunately, they are being sent back to a man called “The Colonel” (Woody Harrelson), a dangerous and single-minded enemy who won’t stop until all apes are destroyed. When members of Caesar’s family are killed by The Colonel, he sets out on a mission of revenge, but finds more than he bargained for in the form of a military so consumed by a theocratic doctrine that all reason has left the building. War is the inevitable conclusion we’ve been waiting for throughout the franchise – the final battle between man and ape. And the humans portrayed here and hardly humans that seem worth saving.
This is a war movie. As much as Apocalypse Now (a film from which War borrows heavily) or The Thin Red Line or Saving Private Ryan. The film opens with an attack in process and rarely lets up, unless it’s to introduce the two newer additions: Nova (Amiah Miller), a young girl the apes discover in a shack; and Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who talks like Caesar and introduces the possibility that there might be more apes out in the world apart from Caesar’s clan. But, when the bullets are flying, War is intense and bleak and more brutal than you’d imagine from this franchise. Matt Reeves has such an affection for this material that he doesn’t tackle anything with abandon. That’s what makes the action here so effective. Each movement, each action, each decision is one note of an even larger symphony that begins right after the opening credit and doesn’t end until camera pans upward and cuts to black.
As far as the performances go – have we praised Andy Serkis enough? I mean, his Caesar has to go down as one of the greatest acting accomplishments of, well…all-time? Just look at the ways in which Caesar evolves and grows from film to film. Here, his speech is near perfect and the few patches of gray showcases his age and weariness. Serkis’s physicality in the role has evolved just as much as the subtlety of the CGI and he has really found a soul to this piece of animation that few others could have. As a whole, I cannot think of a better use of CGI, well…ever? These apes are so lifelike that we never once question the reality of what is happening. There is one scene, in particular, between Maurice (the orange orangutan) and Nova where it’s strictly close-ups of the two and it’s so perfectly animated and seamless that I would have sworn to you in was as authentic as anything between the human actors in the film.
Unfortunately, the human actors are less realized than the apes, which has really been the case all along. And, while I got a kick out of the numerous Apocalypse Now references, Woody Harrelson’s performance takes that homage just a little too far. His Colonel is dark and mean and driven by horrific motives, but it never really makes sense why he allows Caesar to live, knowing how much he means to the other apes. If you’re The Colonel, why don’t you just parade him out in front of the others, shoot him, and be done with it? I did appreciate the final scene between Caesar and The Colonel for going in a way I didn’t expect, but all of the menace built up by The Colonel off-screen is eliminated when he’s on-screen because he’s just not acting in the way someone who seems to be one step ahead would. We have to get rid of the ridiculous trope where the bad guy spills the beans to the hero for no reason other than to unload. When are they going to learn to just kill the good guy and have one less thing to worry about?
Another human with whom I had an issue was a soldier named Preacher (Gabriel Chavarria). He’s shown mercy by Caesar at the beginning, spends a large chunk of the film shooting these empathetic glances towards Caesar, and then turns out to be just another disciple of The Colonel at the end. I don’t understand why we needed all those glances when he turned out to be as terrible as every other human at the base? It would have been nice to have seen one redeeming human character in the film, and Nova doesn’t count. I guess they needed to establish that to make us root for the apes, but I kept thinking back to James Franco and John Lithgow in the first film and how their relationship with Caesar was the heart of that picture. Even Dawn gave us some human characters worthy of saving. Here, we get a sea of monsters with zero complexity. That might be the single greatest misstep of the entire trilogy.
So: where does War rank? It’s difficult to judge these films as separate entities now. I see them all as parts of one extremely successful work. Each installment is necessary to tell the tale, and each brings its own tone as well. War is missing a lot of the optimism and humor of the previous two, though Steve Zahn as Bad Ape does provide a lot of charm and laughs. Maybe it’s because Matt Reeves knows where this film is heading and maybe it seemed a tad disrespectful to think about making it any lighter. Regardless, War for the Planet of the Apes is a fantastic conclusion to a trilogy that caught pretty much everyone offguard with its skill, weight, and commitment to treating its non-human characters with even more gravity than its human ones. I was sad at the end of this film. For obvious reasons, and also because I knew I didn’t have another installment to look forward to, at least not from Matt Reeves. Sure, they might continue the franchise, but it won’t be the same. These three films are Matt Reeves’ opus. They have established him as the best studio director working today. Hail, Caesar! Hail, Matt Reeves! Hail, War!