“All of human history has led to this moment. The irony is we created you. And nature has been punishing us ever since. This is our last stand. And if we lose… it will be a Planet of Apes.”
I was always a fan of the original Planet Of The Apes series of films. While they often flirted with a camp style, I was impressed with John Chambers’ makeup effects and the performances of Roddy McDowall as both Cornelius and Caesar. Then came the television show, and I was just as enchanted, and that was helped along by McDowall’s appearance as a third ape, Galen. The show didn’t last a season, and before long the Apes franchise was left in some kind of limbo. Then along came Tim Burton, and I was excited to see what he could do with the material. Could this be the beginning of a new series of films? No, it was horrible, and the franchise suffered another lingering death. I had now given up hope that the Apes would ever return. Then came Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, and I was suddenly enchanted once again. Little did I know that combined with Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and now War For The Planet Of The Apes, science fiction’s greatest trilogy would emerge. Where will they go from here?
It has been many years since Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. Caesar (Serkis) hasn’t been heard from in many years. He and his ape civilization have become something of a mythology to the soldiers who are on constant patrol hoping to find and eliminate the ape threat once and for all. One such patrol comes upon the ape settlement, and a firefight results. The apes prevail, and then Caesar does something unexpected. He allows the surviving human captives to return to their camp with a message that he wants peace and is willing to coexist with humans. That really isn’t going to work for a character we know only as The Colonel (Harrelson). The conflict escalates, and Caesar finally realizes he must confront this human once and for all. What happens next is both unexpected and amazing for the viewer.
The movie becomes a bit of a road film as Caesar and a small band of followers make way for The Colonel’s camp. Along the way they witness exactly what is happening to the planet since the virus outbreak. They also meet some interesting characters. Nova is a young child, played by Amiah Miller. She’s the kind of human Caesar must hope he will encounter more often. She is friendly and at ease in the company of the intelligent apes. There’s a bond that develops here that is an obvious desire for future human/ape relations. They also encounter the opposite side of the same coin with an ape who refers to himself as Bad Ape because that’s all he was used to hearing humans say to him. He’s played a little too much for comedy relief, voiced by Steve Zahn. Of course, the Nova character is a bit of a nod to the original film, as is the name of Caesar’s newest son, Cornelius. This act of the film is a rewarding one, indeed. The pace might seem a little slow for anyone who comes to this movie expecting wall-to-wall fighting as the name might imply. But if you keep an open mind, this journey is a wonderful trip through this new world with amazing emotional beats that have you soon forgetting that these emotions are coming from talking apes created through computers. It’s a powerful script that breaks down these barriers and allows such a connection with these characters.
Of course, they do reach the base, and we get to meet The Colonel, who is an obvious homage to Marlon Brando’s character in Apocalypse Now, right down to his shaving his head and muttering almost incoherent lines of ideology with almost a religious fervor. Caesar arrives to find that The Colonel has enslaved hundreds of apes to build his fortress against not just the apes but a surviving military structure that considers him insane and rogue. Yet another nod to Brando’s crazy but classic character. If you need any proof that the comparison is completely intentional, you need look no farther than graffiti on a sewer wall that reads Ape-pocalypse Now. In one of the film’s most dramatic and touching moments, Caesar and The Colonel have a bit of a talk. Here we learn what the stakes of the film really are, and we learn it without the violence too many will come to this film expecting. Yes, there’s the daring prison break and the military engagement you likely came expecting to see. But it won’t be exactly what you were expecting, to be sure. The ending will take you by surprise. One chapter closes. We’re now ready for the next chapter in The Planet Of The Apes.
The strength of this film remains with the outstanding motion-capture performance of Andy Serkis. He was a pioneer for that kind of acting. It’s getting more commonplace but Serkis still stands above anything that anyone out there is doing. Caesar is as real as any character you’ve encountered on film. There is thought and emotion behind his eyes. Caesar is haunted by the ghost of Koba and that inner turmoil is as clear as it would be on a real human face. The performance alone is worth the price of admission.
The film goes completely against expectations and is a more thoughtful and contemplative film than the title implies. Matt Reeves has worked wonders with this franchise, and he continues to astound with each film. The technology continues to improve to the point that these apes are as real as any of the human characters, and honestly more relatable in the end. The film is ultimately about family and unity, and at its core it’s about survival. Reeves has demonstrated something that people like Michael Bay seems to have forgotten. You can put millions of dollars of effects on a screen and make it all a crucial part of an emotional story. Here those amazing digital wonders blend flawlessly into a narrative where you aren’t supposed to marvel at technology; rather it just becomes a part of the story. The strings are invisible here, and that makes a world of difference. Within minutes I stopped thinking about effects at all. Reeves allowed the film to absorb me totally with no distractions or “look at me” moments. This may not be an accurate look at Earth’s future, but I hope it’s an accurate look at the future of f/x and story. “Apes together strong.“