War for the Planet of the Apes
Director - Matt Reeves
Writers - Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves
Starring - Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson
It is insane to think that one of the most emotionally draining character dramas in recent memory is about a bunch of chimpanzees. The fact that Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes succeeds in that regard is a testament to the high level of artistry on display.
In many ways, the picture is the perfect conclusion to the Apes prequel trilogy. Much like Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes did with Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, War builds on what has come before in logical, yet unexpected, ways. It acts perfectly as the final chapter of the trilogy, with seamless cohesion to the other two movies, while simultaneously standing alone as its own unique thing.
With each picture, this trilogy has grown into something different. In a very literal sense, the world in which these characters inhabit changes drastically from chapter to chapter. As a result, the movies themselves change too. In the case of War, five years has passed since the end of Dawn. The world has become newly uncharted territory, manifesting itself in the form of a war movie with western elements.
Reeves clearly draws stylistic inspiration from the Vietnam War films of the 1970s and 1980s. The movie is not shy about its love for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, even name-checking it in one scene. Michael Seresin’s photography is heavily influenced by that of Apocalypse cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, with certain shots clearly referencing the visuals from that film.
The influence is clear thematically as well. Andy Serkis’ Caesar is going down his own proverbial river in this picture, and when he gets to the end, Kurtz is waiting for him in the form of Woody Harrelson’s colonel.
This repurposing of genre is very effective, and extends to War’s use of elements from earlier films in the franchise, going all the way back to Franklin J. Schaffner’s original The Planet of the Apes. Like the two prior movies, War’s references to the Apes franchise are deep cuts remixed to work for this story. And yet, the picture maintains the essence of those elements, even if they are barely recognizable on the surface.
None of this would matter if the viewer was not convinced that these apes were real characters inhabiting a real world. Fortunately, the quality of the content is matched, and maybe even surpassed, by that of the visual effects. The photo-realism of the apes is next-level, and the combination of performance capture and CGI is seamless.
This leads to perhaps the most impressive thing in the movie, Andy Serkis’ perfomance. His portrayal of Caesar has evolved as the character has over the course of this trilogy. With War, Serkis reaches new heights. Yes, he is clearly the industry leader for bringing CGI characters to life. But in this picture, Serkis’ performance transcends that niche. It is masterful acting by any metric, and deserves to be counted as one of the great performances of the year by any actor in any movie.
Remakes are hard. So are prequels. So are conclusions to trilogies. War for the Planet of the Apes is all of those things, and succeeds on every level. It is reverent to the source material, but not beholden to it. It adds to the mythology while not unnecessarily filling in blanks. It offers a satisfying end to an epic saga which has played out over the course of three movies, while maintaining its own identity.
In a world where so many movie franchises whither and die over time, it is refreshing come across one which sticks the landing in its final chapter.