War for the Planet of Apes - Review: The Greatest Apes Yet!
Escalating sequel names - a franchise time bomb? While there are notable cases of promoting a smaller more intimate sequel, most of the time the emphasis is on a follow-up film being bigger and better than the last. In the more traditional sense of numbered sequel/franchise entries, this is nothing to go ape about. Yet for a franchise based semicolon buzzword titles, the need to make each sound bigger than the last will always blow up in their face. You name an entry, “Apocalypse” or “Extinction”.... which screws you over when something has to come after it. Even great franchises like Die Hard really ran out of steam trying to “Die Harder” in the name department (“A Good Day to Die Hard”.... seriously!). Unfortunately, it feels like this modern Planet of the Apes run has also fallen victim to such a troupe. Its “War” moniker is clearly intended to promote a sense of escalation from the prior entries but it has surprisingly little reflection on the film itself. There may be a war going on but this is not a war movie being far more character-focused drama than a series of battle based set pieces. It’s important to be aware of that going in to keep your expectations in check.... it’s also why this is the smartest and most impressive offering in the franchise to date. War may be good for a title but quality of storytelling makes this a summer must-see.
For two years, Caesar’s (Andy Serkis – LOTR, King Kong) advanced apes have been in conflict with the humans. As his kin start taking heavy losses by merely protecting themselves, Caesar is pushed to more drastic measures against The Colonel (Woody Harrelson – Hunger Games, Now You See Me).
For the most part, this is a small-focused movie around Caesar and his few core cast member apes (like the Orang-utan Maurice) after the opening act events see them separated from the rest of tribe. This keeps things simple and structured rather than juggling too many CG faces and allows the film to focus on the core strength of the franchise, creating humanity within its ape cast as they aspire to become more. Everything revolves around an excellent central conflict for Caesar (the real war here is internal). As The Colonel’s actions drive him to bitter hatred and vengeance, is he becoming like the warmongering Koba from Dawn? Is he becoming everything he sought to be better than? Can anyone truly hold on to their humanity during a time of war? Returning Dawn director Matt Reeves plays this out into a layered story of actions and consequences on both sides of the conflict. In fact, the plot points are so effortlessly laid out that even franchise newcomers will have no issues understanding their relevance. While there is less visual war depiction, the film finds many great ways to incorporate it thematically. Such as turncoat “Donkey” apes siding with the humans out of fear or the use of the rescued orphan girl (later named Nova) to depict the presence of innocence. We do still get some bigger action moments that impress but this film does not quite recapture the intensity of such scenes in Dawn.
This film spends significantly less time with its human cast than the prior two films yet really impresses while it keeps its narrative moving despite most inter-ape dialogue being slow and sparse subtitled sign language. Firstly, a huge beat of the chest goes out to composer Michael Giacchino for what will be one of 2017's finest sound tracking and scoring works. From bolder themes of real epic grandeur or tender emotional beats, it’s a veritable audio essay of on screen expression. Its importance to preserving narrative momentum and avoiding excessive forced ape dialogue (that would ruin so many moments) cannot be understated. Yet the apes do have a voice courtesy to Caesar’s solemn low-growled tones but also via a new, slightly goofy voiced, ape character that you might have seen in the trailers, accredited as, “Bad Ape”. While for a moment, he feels in danger of doing a Jar Jar by being more of a comical character but, to writer Mark Bomback’s credit, he actually nails the balance between being comedic and having dramatic purpose. As such, he becomes very enjoyable and crucially allows the film to defuse its serious and sombre sections when required. It lets War just keep its paws on being a more entertaining summer blockbuster film than slipping further towards being a gritty action/drama. Finally, as you might expect with ever advancing tech, the CG/mo-cap rendering of the apes has never been better making them look and feel veritably human on screen. Not that Serkis and company have ever needed much polishing to impress us but this allows them to keep raising the bar.
War may be light on significant human characters but when the one of them is an on form Woody Harrelson, who gives a baboon’s arse? Harrelson’s Colonel provides the perfect villain foil for Caesar, matching him in conviction towards his almost amoral beliefs. He looks incredible looking down on is assembled troops like a bald Saruman atop his tower and his surprising plot arc keeps him interesting. The film could maybe have done with one other meaningful human character or made a little more of the odd featured soldier but that really is nitpicking.
This certainly isn’t the Apes movie everyone was expecting but unless you’re hell-bent on seeing Planet of the Michael Bay Monkeys, you will not be disappointed by the viewing experience you receive. It’s a film of emotional integrity and character quality that still pulls off of faeces flinging moment without compromising itself. If you walked away from Spider-Man: Homecoming wishing it was a bit more serious, this is the perfect film for you. While this could certainly be the end of accomplished trilogy, there’s still plenty more places the franchise could go and there are reports of a 4th film being planned. As long as nothing changes regarding the mentality of portrayal of the ape characters, let the sequels keep rolling in.... just go easy on the escalating names. Nobody wants an, “Armageddon of the Apes”.