War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) Review
APES TOGETHER STRONG
Back in 2011, 20th Century Fox and director Rupert Wyatt released the film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a sort of reboot cinematic tale of the iconic franchise, which began back in 1968 with the original Planet of the Apes movie. Similar to 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (but not a direct remake of the film), Rise of the Planet of the Apes was set as an origin story for this reboot series, focusing on the tale of the ape Caesar and how he (and his ape brethren) become intelligent and begin a revolt against humanity. The film generally gained positive reviews from critics and moviegoers and went on to gross over $480 million dollars at the box office (#14 on the top grossing films of 2011) and also greenlit a sequel follow-up. That sequel materialized in 2014 with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which was directed by Matt Reeves. Taking place ten after Rise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continues to follow Caesar and his turmoil to hold dominance control of his community of intelligent apes as a group of human survivors struggle to stay alive following the aftermath of a plague that has wiped most of humanity. Dawn was met with overwhelming positive reviews from critics and causal moviegoers and grossed over $700 million at the box office that year, securing a #8 spot on the top grossing movies of 2014. Now, three years later, 20th Century Fox and director Matt Reeves present the third and final chapter of this planned Planet of the Apes trilogy with the film War for the Planet of the Apes. Does this newest sequel bring the story to a satisfying conclusion or does it fall from greatness of its predecessors?
Several years after the traitorous Koba (Toby Kebbell) ignited a war with the humans, Caesar (Andy Serkis) is exhausted in trying to remain a good leader to his intelligent ape tribe, while trying to broker peace to the warring humans that would leave the woods to his ape community; ending the needless suffering on both sides. However, the humans fail to comply to Caesar’s wishes. Under the command of The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), leader of the Alpha-Omega, a rogue military army, the humans escalate their hostilities by killing those close to Caesar. Blind sadness and rage, Caesar seeks revenge, sending his ape family, including his young son Cornelius (Devyn Dalton), to safety while he, alongside his trusted companions Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary), journey to find The Colonel’s military compound, with plans to kill the source all of their grief and misery. Along the way, the group of apes pick up Nova (Amiah Miller), a mute human child, and Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a zoo chimpanzee escapee, and builds a close-knit bond with rest of them. However, Caesar remains focus on the mission at hand, coming face to face with The Colonel and the full wrath of his Alpha-Omega’s soldiers. Learning of The Colonel’s endgame plan, Caesar soon finds himself confronted with his greatest challenge yet, which ultimately becomes clear to him that there’s far more at stake here than just his personal vendetta for revenge.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As I said in my review for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I really never cared for the Planet of the Apes movies franchise. I’ve seeing most of the original 1968 film and snippets of the other Apes films of that era, but really never saw the appeal of it. Then came Tim Burton’s 2001’s Planet of the Apes movie, which I though was okay (I know many critics and moviegoers didn’t like it), but it was still not really spectacular. Of course, when the 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out, I was a bit hesitant (having the Apes franchise not really appeal to me), but I was completely wrong, finding the feature to intriguing as well as entertaining. When Dawn of the Planet of the Apes came out in 2014, my jaw dropped with excitement and amazement at what I saw, finding it to be the best entry in the Planet of the Apes franchise (including the original films) as well as this new planned trilogy. It was great story, a compelling character arc for its hero (Caesar), a solid villain (Koba), terrific mo-cap performances from its ape cast, and the supporting players of the “human” characters. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a top-notch film that delivered and set the bar pretty high for the franchise’s installment (as well as my inherit anticipation to see it).
After first watching Dawn, I was super excited to see War for the Planet of the Apes (I mistakenly call it “War of the Planet of the Apes”) and waiting (like nerd) to when the third and final chapter would be released. Unfortunately, I had to wait three years for it to materialize. However, all the internet news and buzz feeds information about this movie kept me satisfied until then (as well as re-watching Rise and Dawn again) as well as the all the movie’s various trailers and marketing promos for the new film, which added to my overall excitement to see it. I even placed this movie at #4 spot on Jason’s Top 15 Most Anticipated Movies of 2017. So…. what did I think of it? Like Dawn, War for the Planet of the Apes is an impressive feature that is highly entertaining (even as a standalone feature) and acts as proper and satisfying conclusion to this trilogy. Short answer, War for the Planet of the Apes doesn’t disappoint.
Perhaps one of the main reason why Dawn was well-received by many was because of the efforts of director Matt Reeves, whose previous works includes directing several TV shows as well as the fan-favorite giant monster film Cloverfield, on handling the project and crafting into something quite unique and entertaining. Thankfully, Reeves returns to the director chair once again in helming this third installment. Being a previous director to this trilogy franchise, Reeves is well-versed in this cinematic world and execute War beautifully in continuing the story of post-apocalyptic world of human and apes as well as evolving Caesar’s overarching journey in these movies. In addition to directing the feature, Reeves also wrote the film’s script, which was co-scripted with Mark Bomback (who also help write the script for Dawn), providing a narrative story that speaks to the trilogy franchise (i.e. advancing the story) and giving this third Planet of the Apes chapter a proper conclusion to both trilogy (with more room to expand in future installments) as well as bid farewell to Caesar, the trilogy’s main protagonist. Speaking of Caesar, Reeves and Bomback also gives the title character a wholesome journey to follow in War, which proves to be the most emotional and compelling character arc of his in the entire trilogy. Zooming out a bit, War’s story, as a whole, is also quite robust and poignant in this film’s universe as well as its sociopolitical nuances and even a bit of scientific Darwinism.
What also made Dawn such a terrific film was that the movie, while being the second chapter of a trilogy, was also a self-contained story, which can stand on its own merits as a standalone feature. Likewise, Reeves creates War in the same fashion, with the main narrative still following Caesar’s journey and his conflict plight with humans, but the film’s story is self-contained to act as a separate feature. Reeves even recapping the important events from the previous two films (Rise and Dawn) at the beginning of War to help newcomers to the franchise quickly catch up and understand the current situation of the feature. What also makes War impressive is that the movie still feels fresh and doesn’t “dumb down” its narrative and / or characters with frivolous blockbuster nuances. In a movie age of remakes and reboots for potential franchises, this Planet of the Apes trilogy has stood tall and proud as a crowning achievement in its reimagine endeavors, with War, its latest installment, being a prime example. Even if you look at other movie franchises (most notably in today’s movie world), by the time it reaches the third installment features, the movies have become, more or less, a bit hollow from their franchise’s first film (i.e. weak characters, convoluted narrative, formulaic plot beats, recycled ideas, etc.). These films in this Planet of the Apes trilogy, however, sort of break that mold and actually have improved the franchise from what it when it began, which is quite feat to pull off.
On a technically level, War, much like Dawn, is quite an impressive feature film to behold. The layered amount of detail in the movie’s vast set-pieces (i.e. Caesar’s tribe new hidden cave dwelling behind a waterfall or The Colonel’s desolate military facility) is quite an achievement, befitting a blockbuster style film. The movie’s cinematography is also visually striking with cinematographer Michael Seresin creating several grand spectacle shots, finding the beauty within this unforgiving cinematic world as well as some camera angles shots with some touching character moments from the film’s heroes and villains. Naturally, one of the biggest highlights of the feature is the film’s visual effects in bring all the various apes (apes, chimpanzees, gorillas, etc.) to life. While their body movements are performed by motion-capture performances (more on that below), the visual teams of WETA Digital (the CG wizards behind the visuals for both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies and many others) do spectacular work in layering the actors’ performances and bring the apes characters to life. Each installment has improved the visual look various apes and War reaches a culminating peak of CG visuals, rendering each particular ape in intricate detail (skin, wrinkles, fur, etc.) as well as creating realistic exposure to the character’s appearance in certain elements, including water and snow. I found myself in awe over watching how these apes look and appear almost life-like and a sheer cinematic achievement in film in blending actual human movement performances and computer-generated visuals (aka great “movie magic”). Lastly, the movie’s score, which was composed by Michael Giacchino (man, he does get a lot of work…and work for good reason), is also great, with Giacchino interjecting his own musical moments of soft touching melodies and bombastic and verbose suites.
While War is indeed a palpable, emotional, and entertaining feature to view, there were two minor problem that I had with this movie. First, was the climatic final battle. Its action-packed and with explosion, gunfire, heroism, and poignant meaning, but the end result was a little bit less than what I was expecting it to be. Maybe because the climatic ending “battle” in Dawn was incredible awesome (seeing Caesar and Koba fighting one another on top of a half-constructed building) and set the high bar pretty high for what was to come in War. Those expecting a “all-out war” showdown between humans and apes will be slightly disappointed with what’s actually presented War’s third act battle sequence. There’s still plenty of action and excitement to keep a viewer’s attention glued to what’s happening on-screen, but it just doesn’t resonate as strongly as what Dawn achieved and / or what I was expecting to see from War’s climatic “final battle”. The other small negative point I have with War is that the second act, while important and pivotal to the narrative, is a bit lacking in comparison to the first and third act, with a few scenes slow down the pace of the film. Again, these two negative points are merely just minor quibbles to my overall positive outlook on this film, but enough to standout to make Dawn slightly better than War.
Much like the past two Planet of the Apes installments of this trilogy, Andy Serkis continues to prove that he’s the driving force and beating heart of this franchise in his portrayal of Caesar. While he has appeared on-screen as an actor in various feature films including Inkheart, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the upcoming Marvel film Black Panther, Serkis is mostly known for his amazing mo-cap (motion capture) performances with such iconic characters like Gollum from Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth cinematic saga (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, and An Unexpected Journey), King Kong in Jackson’s 2004’s reimaging of King Kong, Captain Haddock in Spielberg’s 2011 The Adventure of Tintin, and Supreme Leader Snoke in the new Star Wars saga (Episode VII to IX). Naturally, beyond his portrayal of Gollum, Serkis’s second best mo-cap performance is found within his of the ape Caesar, with War given the seasoned actor plenty of room to further grow and evolve the character. Given the film’s narrative and plot structure, Serkis is also given room for him to explore the more “dark side” of Caesar’s mind, which was hinted in Dawn, but becomes more prevalent as War’s tale unfolds. Likewise, Serkis continues to dominate in these movies as Caesar, producing some stirring and complex motion-capture performances within his character, which makes us (the viewer) deeply care for this ape protagonist. In short, Serkis’s Caesar is something truly memorable in both this trilogy franchise and in moviemaking history as War continues solidifies that notion on why he (Serkis) is a true master in mo-cap performances.
Along with Serkis’s Caesar, War also ensembles a shortlist of strong mo-cap performers to provide the body movement and / or voice actors for the apes of the feature. Of course, most notably on this list is Karin Konoval (2012 and Alone in the Dark) as benevolent and seasoned orangutan Maurice, who has played a central figure to Caesar in these movies as his closest friend and conscience confidant as well as movement chorographer / performer Terry Notary (Kong: Skull Island and Warcraft) as Caesar’s other faithful ape companion Rocket. Other returning characters of the franchise include Caesar’s wife Cornelia, who is played by Judy Greer (Ant-Man and Archer), and Caesar’s first son Blue Eyes, who is played by Max Lloyd-Jones (Switched at Birth and When Calls the Heart), but was originally played by Nick Thurston in Dawn. Of the non-human newcomers, actor Steve Zahn is the standout role with his character of Bad Ape. Zahn, known for his roles in Sahara, Joy Ride, and the HBO TV show Treme, interjects a very charismatic and memorable role within Bad Ape, a lonely chimpanzee whose innocent naivety / child-like demeanor allows for humorous bits here and there throughout War’s story. This does help bring a sort of comedy levity to the movie’s overall gravitas without it feeling shoehorned in or clunky within the film narrative mechanics. In contrast to Zahn’s Bad Ape, actor Ty Olsson (X2: X-Men United and Battlestar Galactica) portrayal of Red, a gorilla who serves the human soldiers led by The Colonel, is a bit subtler, but allows the character to provide an interesting moral ambiguity aspect in this humans vs ape conflict, which makes for good storytelling. Other noteworthy non-human character newcomers include Sara Canning (Black Field and Prodigals) as the chimpanzee Lake and Aleks Paunovic (Driven to Kill and Vendetta) as the albino gorilla Winter; both of which are members of Caesar’s tribe.
Like the previous installments, human characters are featured in the movie (depicted as the opposition to ape-kind), but, unlike the other two films, War only shines its spotlight on two characters. As to expected, the role of The Colonel is played to be the villain of the feature as actor Woody Harrelson portrays him. Harrelson, known for his roles in the TV show Cheers as well as films like Zombieland, Wilson, and The Hunger Games movies, does good acting work as The Colonel, playing the role as a steel-fisted antagonist (calm, cold, and calculating). Underneath that demeanor, Harrelson also portrays his character with a sense of menace and depth as to why he’s doing what he’s doing, which is kind of interesting and sort of further plants the ideas for future installments (expanding on ideas within the film’s universe). While his screen time is somewhat limited and doesn’t have the vile ferociousness that Koba was able to pull off in Dawn, Harrelson’s The Colonel perfectly complements Caesar’s story arc in War; testing the ape ability as a leader and in a sense of morality. The other human character in War goes to the human child character of Nova, who is played by Amiah Miller (Lights Out and the Disney TV show Best Friends Whenever). Though her character isn’t given much depth in War, her addition is a welcomed one, serving an important role in future of the Planet of the Apes story (hint, hint) as well as being brought to life by Miller’s solid performance; a role that requires her to convey her character’s emotions / reasoning without a spoken line of dialogue.
Caesar seeks revenge against The Colonel and battles against his own moral compass in the movie War for the Planet of the Apes. Director Matt Reeves newest film brings the journey of Caesar full circle, culminating in a wholesome feature that blends a compelling cinematic storytelling with incredible CG visuals, and amazing motion capture performances, especially with Serkis’s masterfully work as Caesar. While there are some minor nitpicks, the movie itself is hugely entertaining and powerful told; proving once again that a movie doesn’t have to be a “dumb” popcorn flick to be a summer blockbuster release. Personally, I loved this movie. Dawn still slightly beats out this installment out as my personal favorite, but War has plenty to like about it and like I said above, it certainly does deliver an extremely satisfying final installment of this trilogy. As you can imagine, I’m definitely giving this my “highly recommended” stamp of approval and is already one of my personal favorite movies of the 2017 year. While the movie concludes Caesar’s tale by the time the end credits begin to roll, the movie’s ending leaves the door open for additional Planet of the Apes movies, further bridging the gap to the original 1968 classic (with plenty of room in-between). As it stands, War for the Planets of the Apes is a crowning hallmark achievement, delivering an emotional and highly satisfying final chapter of this trilogy.
4.5 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: July 14th, 2017
Reviewed On: July 15th, 2017
War for the Planet of the Apes is 133 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some disturbing images and brief strong language