What the new Planet of the Apes series has taken to its heart is that for all the spectacle and theatrics that a Hollywood summer blockbuster can offer, audiences won’t really care enough unless you have a genuinely engaging narrative and characters to populate the space between action scenes – and for all the bombastic imagery that its title might suggest, War for the Planet of the Apes is not an action film. In fact, the War of the title feels far better applied as one of metaphorical grappling than it does of any warfare related content, with the battle raging at the heart of its lead character, Caesar (Andy Serkis), taking centre stage in the ongoing apocalyptic conflict.
The journey of Caesar since Rise and through to Dawn has seen him come to terms with moral complexities of compromise, his loyalty to his own kind and his willingness to offer peace to an increasingly dangerous and more desperate humanity on the brink of destruction, pushing him ever closer toward his breaking point – and in War we see that boundary of tolerance finally broken in an emotional, thought provoking and devastatingly dark way that makes this latest instalment not only the best of the trilogy, but one of the best major releases to come out this year.
This is a prisoner of war story where there is no easy way out of a conflict this divergent, messy and final. The bleak moral enquiry of Dawn is a prevalent force of discord between the increasingly humane apes and equally animalistic humanity (as do many of the other spectres of its predecessor that continue to haunt the characters), with the humans reduced to mere titles as an ethno-nationalist group of the worst of humanity left to burn the rest of the world to a cinder in the absence of control. Though Woody Harrelson’s remarkably cruel Colonel, Leader of the Alpha-Omega military outfit, is given his due in personal depths and reasoning, it feels like a sickness that has spread to the minds of every living thing in the world that reducing them to states of primal arrest in more ways than might be apparent.
That the film spends as long as it does wallowing in the meditation that is the internal struggle raging for Caesar’s soul is a bold risk for any blockbuster picture, but then again the Apes series has always been about forcing political discussion and relevance regarding its contextual backdrops into the forefront of its storytelling. Said commentaries have evolved over the course of each film, and in War it is more obvious than ever that the angle of marginalisation, racial prejudice and intolerance is what this has been building toward all along. Images like ‘The Only Good Kong is a Dead Kong” and a gorilla with the word ‘Donkey’ sprayed on their back burn loud and speak volumes while the films terrific opening set-piece lays out the groundwork with very little dialogue.
The set-pieces on show are just as raw and magnetically compelling to watch as before, with Matt Reeves continued refinement of directorial skill producing visual wonders that extend beyond the digital effects thanks to his continuing collaborations with DP Michael Seresin, his eye for framing and outside texture, and his work on the layered and deeply involving screenplay. Although its feels like there may be just one coincidence too many in the final movement to align itself with its desired ending.
Make no mistake though, the work by WETA Digital is a continuing and awe-inspiring achievement in the fields of motion capture and performance art and digital filmmaking. The photorealistic apes take up more of the screen time than ever before, and are just about the most impressive looking digital effects ever produced thanks to the incredible physical and emotional performances that inform them. Karin Konoval as orangutan Maurice, Terry Notary as chimpanzee Rocket and Ty Olsson as gorilla Red have brought so much to these characters, and newcomer Steve Zahn as Bad Ape brings some much needed levity and comedy to balance out some of the darkness quite wonderfully. But Serkis is once again the highlight as the tormented and broken down Caesar in one of his greatest ever roles, and if the series is going to continue after this then it may have to do so knowing that Caesar’s journey has come to an end.
It’s broad with scope but powerful in its strokes, with an animated and beautifully characterised score from Michael Giacchino that evokes so much of Jerry Goldsmith’s original without feeling slavish or uncreative in its traditional soundscape. War for the Planet of the Apes is the kind of climax that most trilogies dream of having, where the events of its predecessors have built momentum behind every dramatic beat and pounding fight as the world inches closer to that of the original film, standing proudly alongside its accomplishments as one of the darkest and most intelligent franchises Hollywood has ever produced.