13th Jul2017

‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Amiah Miller, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval | Written by Matt Reeves, Mark Bomback | Directed by Matt Reeves


Matt Reeves is telling us something: This is what happens when a blockbuster budget is used well. The third part of the Apes reboot, following Rupert Wyatt’s Rise and Reeves’ Dawn, may be the pinnacle of the series so far.

In a universe of cinematic universes, War for the Planet of the Apes bucks the trend and feels like a different beast to its predecessors: a true next chapter, with a different mood and a new rhythm, and the balls to bring beloved characters to the end of their arc.

Following the catastrophic events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in which civil war broke out between the proud Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the hateful Koba (Tony Kebbell), relations between humans and apes are at an all-time low. The humans – aided by guerrilla gorillas referred to as “Donkeys” – hunt Caesar’s greatly extended family in the woods.

Caesar brings his people to the caves, where they are attacked by a crazed human Colonel (Woody Harrelson). Tragedy befalls the apes. Shit just got personal for Caesar, and the turning point itself is a stunning lesson in visual storytelling – one which provides a simple yet profound motivation for all the events to come.

Consumed by rage – just as Koba once was – Caesar sets out to take his revenge on the Colonel. He intends his mission to be his sacrifice, and a means to provide the distraction the rest of the apes need to flee to the desert and start anew, in peace. Some of Caesar’s friends insist on joining him on his quest, including the gentle giant Maurice (Karin Konoval) and the hulking, soulful Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). Along the way they will meet two new additions to their crew. Broadly speaking, one is comic relief and the other is the epitome of innocence – but there is far more to each of them than that reductive description.

The goal is the Colonel’s compound, where a human army prepares for war. But there are surprises in store. Caesar and his fellowship will find that there is a more malevolent force at work at the camp. They will also discover that the Colonel’s standing amongst humankind isn’t what it first appeared.

A showdown between great military leaders beckons, against the backdrop of an existential threat in the form of a virus threatening to wither humankind into oblivion.

Caesar is firmly the central character this time around. No human character gets a fraction of the screen time enjoyed by Serkis’s masterful CG embodiment. Serkis’s augmented performances are usually about the eyes. But here, it’s just as much about the way he breathes – heavy, stuttered, or sometimes stopped.

At the beginning, Caesar’s star is at its zenith. We get a classic Paths of Glory-style tracking shot through the monkey trenches, with soldiers swooning with pride. But Caesar’s story isn’t one of unfettered respect and triumph. His journey is one of coming to terms with bad leadership decisions; of correcting wrong choices made out of primal feelings. To this end, Caesar is haunted by his old nemesis Koba (Toby Kebbell), the ghost of his conscience and a vision of hopelessness.

Apart from himself, Caesar’s greatest enemy is the Colonel, played with magnificent intensity and sadness by Harrelson. Like a slightly more forthcoming Colonel Kurtz, he is the kind of complex bad guy that Marvel could only dream of. “History, history, history” is daubed in the Colonel’s quarters. He’s waiting for the “holy war” to arrive – something to match his ego – and in the meantime he’s building a gargantuan wall. (Remind you of anyone?) The world to this nameless man is a hostile place. Nature, he believes, is merciless – so he must match nature’s mercilessness. Ultimately, his logic will have a horribly unexpected prescience.

From a filmmaking perspective, Reeves is on top form, showing some of the poise of Stanley Kubrick and the scope of David Lean. He has fashioned a psychologically intense adventure which has the sweep of a classical Roman epic, to the point where Caesar finds a graveyard of crucifixes lining the road to the Colonel’s compound. There are echoes of Crassus and Spartacus in the way the Colonel jealously regards the legend of Caesar.

Michael Giacchino’s score even has a crashing, percussive Alex North quality. But more often the music is painfully plaintive. Juxtaposed against the images of war violence and bloodstained snow are scenes of lovely, unsentimental tenderness. There is something elementally moving about the compassion that builds between the colossal presence of Maurice and the fragile human girl Nova (Amiah Miller, sweetly understated).

The other major addition in this instalment is the “Bad Ape”, a traumatised chimp played with incredible nuance by Steve Zahn. His introduction is a fantastically bizarre fairy tale subplot. A perennially panic-stricken intellectual, Bad Ape is great fun throughout, and with a little more involvement in the later stages he may have rivalled Gollum for the most captivating CG creation I’ve ever seen.

What a wonderful and rare cinematic monolith this is. Apart from developing the Apes saga in unpredictable and very welcome ways, War for the Planet of the Apes succeeds through a near-perfect balance of humour, pathos and action. It’s weightier than Rise, and has better pacing and a more compelling focus than Dawn. It’s a romping adventure story with real boldness and depth. It feels like what movies are for.

War for the Planet of the Apes is out in cinemas now.


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