Back in 2011, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes surprised the world simply by nature of its quality. Though the Planet of the Apes franchise was once mighty, Tim Burton had attempted to revive it in 2001 to little success. The film was a financial success, but seemingly failed to stir up much excitement among audiences, with most viewers looking for reasons to hate to the film at every turn. Following that film, there wasn’t much reason to believe that audiences wanted more from the property but 20th Century Fox was hoping otherwise. In order to reignite audience interest with its 2011 prequel, they knew that the film had to be good. But, instead of merely delivering a good film, Wyatt delivered an amazing one. People flocked to it, spread overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth, and a new take on a classic franchise was launched.
After a second, also well-received, sequel by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, here we are at the conclusion of the prequel trilogy as Reeves returns to finish the job and Caesar’s story with War for the Planet of the Apes. I was actually unaware that this was a planned finale until the trailers and television spots began advertising it as such. Knowing that certainly adds an extra level of urgency to the proceedings, which is saying something as this particular series has never lacked a sense of urgency.
That doesn’t change with War. I really can’t say much about the story because spoileriffic events occur early on in the film, so suffice it to say that we pick up where Dawn left off and a full-scale war for survival has erupted between the apes and the humans. The apes are – as before – unquestionably and unflinchingly positioned as the protagonists. Caesar and his brethren don’t wish for war. They only want to live their lives in peace. The humans, however, fear what they don’t understand (so, so true) and insist on a them-or-us mentality, forcing Caesar’s opposable-thumb-equipped hand, lest he want all of his friends and family to die.
Leading the humans, this time around, is Woody Harrelson’s nameless Colonel. He’s merciless and driven by an unquenchable survival instinct that isn’t so blind as to miss the bigger picture. Tactful and intelligent, the Colonel makes a worthy foe for fan-favorite Caesar and carries the war from the battlefield to the soul, demanding that Caesar confront sides of himself that he has never been required to confront, before.
Caesar, himself, has become one of the great cinematic characters . . . well, I was going to say “of recent years”, but I think it extends far beyond that. Not only is he a wondrous technical achievement (I’d single him out as the greatest CGI character in film history), but he is a fully fleshed-out, extraordinarily complex character. From one film to the next, Caesar has grown, experienced, grown more, learned from his trials, and responded accordingly. He clings to the memory of the good he knows to be in people – the good he saw in James Franco’s Will back in 2011’s original installment – and refuses to give in to the belief that all humans are bad. Simultaneously, his conflict with Koba in 2014’s Dawn – as well as Koba’s general philosophy – haunt him with the knowledge that Koba’s views don’t ring completely false, even if his actions were poorly conceived.
It’s this internal battle that adds the extra layer of psychologically-enticing character work to War. Most of us always want to do what’s good and what’s right. But in real life, what’s “good” and “right” isn’t always so easily determined. And when your entire species’ survival depends upon your singular judgement (with some counsel from steadfast Maurice), how can you be sure that you’re making the right decisions without compromising yourself? And should that potential compromise even be a concern when the stakes are so high?
These are all questions raised in War. And each principle character reflects those questions in their own unique ways. All of them, on both sides of the conflict, have their own understandable, believable motivations, conveying the true labyrinthine nature of war. So, while this is technically a war movie, the film truly explores the personal battles that are also waged while the gunfire erupts and the grenades explode, providing the viewer with much more to latch onto than just the clichéd war-is-hell trope.
It seems almost insulting to even mention special effects when discussing a film as thoughtful and eloquent as this one, but it would in actuality be insulting not to. If War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t awarded with the Best Achievement in Visual Effects award at the Academy Awards, next year, then a true travesty will have occurred. If I didn’t know better, I would believe that apes had truly gained the ability to speak and then also act. The visuals are absolutely flawless and I had to perpetually remind myself that, for much of the filming, director Reeves was pointing his cameras at empty sets and backgrounds. The fact that this series of films not only leans on effects, but directly relies on them in order to keep the viewer engaged and the narrative gripping must place extreme pressure on the effects artists, but effects house WETA constantly outdoes themselves and they have truly managed something special with Caesar and his fellow apes.
Reeves has truly found his voice and his eye as a storyteller. War for the Planet of the Apes is an elegant, frequently violent, sometimes painful, occasionally funny work of pure art that transcends genre to remind its audience that life is precious and war is not something to be glorified or sought, but something to be avoided, when possible, and hastened, when not. It reminds me of a modern-day Beowulf, because the whole production feels like a poem – a brutal, thrilling, moving poem. Each shot is another line, each scene is another stanza, until suddenly we have a complete picture of a fabled hero named Caesar. But, unlike the dictator who was his namesake, this Caesar aims to be a liberator; he desires a different story. He gets one, and it’s a complete triumph.
With War of the Planet of the Apes, the modern Planet of the Apes trilogy has to be considered one of the great all-time trilogies. I’m hard-pressed to come up with too many that could conceivably, objectively be considered better. Taken as a whole, Caesar’s story is a poignant, sprawling tale of resilience, honor, and apotheosis. Taken as a third chapter, War is a large-scale, unpredictable tale of life, sacrifice, and resignation. There are a lot of great movies out there, right now. War for the Planet of the Apes is as deserving of your money as any of them.
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