WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (15)
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn
Review: David Stephens
If there was ever a perfect franchise that showed both the “right” and “wrong” way to perform a reboot, then it would be undoubtedly “Planet of the Apes”. After the previous run of films that ran from the iconic original Charlton Heston film in 1968 (“Damn you all to Hell!!”), to the slight underwhelming “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” in 1973, the decision to reboot the films for a modern age must have seemed a sound one. Unfortunately Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” in 2001 was a stinker; critically derided for its awkward plot and hated for its nonsensical ending (so bad nobody even cared to formulate a meaning for it). So when “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” came out in 2011, expectations were low. Happily both “Rise” (directed by Rupert Wyatt) and 2014’s “Dawn” (directed by Matt Reeves) were both excellent and loved by critics and fans alike. With a grounded and emotional story, and superlative effects creating totally believable simian characters, they established a new lore for the tale of intelligent apes usurping man’s dominance on Earth. Now “War for the Planet of the Apes”, directed by Reeves again, is out in UK and US cinemas and closes this current trilogy of sci-fi epic-ness. YGROY takes a swing at it and decides whether you would be bananas to miss it. (*Badum … Tish!*).
It’s been about two years since the events of “Dawn”, and Caesar (Andy Serkis, still blowing it out of the water with his mo-cap work) continues to lead the collective troop of intelligent apes. Haunted by his necessary slaying of the out-of-control Koba, and the ever-increasing aggression of the humans, the reluctant king has them hidden in a refuge in a mountain behind a waterfall. But just as his oldest son Blue-Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones) returns with news of a viable home out in the desert, the apes are attacked again by soldiers. This time it personally involves the Colonel of the military faction (Woody Harrelson playing … err … “The Colonel”) trying to perform a direct and specific kill. It succeeds in enraging Caesar who directs his followers to travel to a new home, whilst he embarks on a seemingly suicidal mission with a few loyal followers, to try to finally stop the humans from causing the extinction of his people. Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan for anyone…
C’mon … did anyone really think that this wouldn’t be awesome. Unless it pulled a “Spider-Man 3”, and Caesar did an emo-dance, this was always going to be another great entry in the revitalised franchise and not a disappointing trilogy closer. And it is great. With a confident Reeves returning to the groundwork that he lay in the previous film (they spoke of this military encampment and army, remember?), he had a game-plan, and it works.
First off, let’s just say that predictably the mo-cap and CG work is astonishing. At no point in the proceedings are you not 100% convinced that any of the apes in the movie are living breathing “animals”. It is flawless work, and they emote perfectly. Even balding jug-eared “Bad Ape” (who looked a bit cartoony in the trailers) is perfect here. And they have to be, because they are the focal points of everything in the narrative and humans (bar a couple of notable exceptions) are the extras basically. But it works because we care and relate to these “people” and sympathise with their plight. When some blockbusters fill the air with explosions, pretty sunsets and waving flags (*cough*MichaelBay*cough*), this makes a point of burning a flag and having a wall built by slave-labour.
Particularly impressive is the way in which it markedly and gradually draws itself closer to the vision of Earth as it was in the 1968 Heston movie. The “scarecrows” appear (albeit for a different purpose) and there’s a clever plot development (which we won’t spoil) that points towards the future hierarchy on Earth. The presence of “Nova” (the origin of her name is neatly revealed here in an eye-winking fashion) also links to the previous films, but in a lovely innovative way. Brilliantly played by young actress Amiah Miller (from “Lights Out” … seriously, horror is churning out so many talented youngsters lately) it’s a sort of repeat of the relationship in “Logan”, with another mute girl coaxing the best emotions out of the stoic lead. If your heart-strings don’t do the fandango with Miller’s reaction towards a significant early death, than you’re stronger than we are.
Admittedly, for a film with “War” in the title, there’s actually not that much physical fighting in all honesty. It’s mostly about inner conflict and emotional intensity. Two particular face-offs with Caesar and the Colonel just crackle with intensity, and it’s one of the best roles that Harrelson has had for ages, which he absolutely nails. And we don’t need to tell you how good Serkis is, mo-cap or no mo-cap it’s extraordinary visual acting. And befitting a summer blockbuster that doesn’t play by the rules, the final confrontation may not be as you expect. Watch for the importance of a certain object, that’s all we’ll say…
Reeves previously stated that he was trying for a David Lean/British war movie type feel, and that’s pretty much qualified here. It goes from “The Dirty Dozen” (or “Furry Four” in this case), to “Bridge on the River Kwai”, and then “The Great Escape”.
It feels bigger in scope than “Dawn” and has more expansive locations. And the denouement does contain some truly impressive sequences of massed fighting (although a natural phenomenon screams deus-ex-machina). But as a result it feels like “old school” filmmaking and a refreshing change from overblown ka-boom-filled exercises.
If there is any criticism, it’s that it does feel like the wheels are spinning just a little bit when Caesar reaches the location he’s searching for, and the ability for one character to wander into an apparently high-security encampment with no trouble seems a little weird. Suspiciously, the number of apes still seems to fluctuate according to necessity. But that is nit-pickery of the highest order, and we won’t speak of it again.
Beyond that, this is an atypical summer blockbuster that should be savoured and enjoyed. Refusing to take the easy and obvious routes to its conclusion, it’s filled with rich emotion and great performances. If it does turn out to be the absolute final (and that’s looking increasingly unlikely) chapter in this version of the “Planet of the Apes” canon, then it’s a fine way to finish up. If it isn’t, we’re happy to keep on swinging with these winners for as long as they want us around.