Five years after Dawn of The Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow apes are pursued by a ruthless Colonel. Following a brutal confrontation, Caesar sets out to execute the colonel and find peace for his society. However, without a leader, the apes become captured by the colonel and Caesar must execute a risky escape.
The Apes Come Full Circle
The recent Planet of the Apes prequels are fascinating. On one hand, the Apes franchise has a die hard fan base. On the other, most of those fans are huge cinephiles, and previous attempts at reviving the franchise proved fruitless. However, in 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes struck a chord with audiences by exploring how the apes came to their superior intelligence. The film was followed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Dawn depicted the disintegrating peace between mankind and apes, and the film ended with Caesar killing his best friend.
The first two films are jaw-dropping spectacles of blockbuster film making. They deliver big action set pieces driven by wonderful bits of emotion. Their effects are second to none and helped legitimize motion capture acting in the eyes of the industry. Matt Reeves took the franchise to another level with the second film, and quickly set to work wrapping up the story of Caesar and his cohorts. The final product is War for the Planet of the Apes.
Facing immeasurable hype from fans, Matt Reeves had to deliver a satisfying narrative that capped off the events of the previous films and pave the way for the first Apes film. That’s a tall order. Fortunately, Matt Reeves is one of Hollywood’s gutsiest film makers. The previous installments of the Apes franchise are unafraid to let scenes breathe and exchanges happen between simple facial movements. However, War for the Planet of the Apes is a nearly wordless affair. The film plants the audience firmly in Caesar’s head. As a result, many of the apes communicate only through sign language. It’s a risk, but it’s a risk that credits its audience with intelligence. The film places viewers in a position where paying attention is utterly important to experiencing the film in full.
Furthermore, watching the apes interact is stunning. Each film progresses the technology further, and seeing how far the tech has come is astonishing. Of course, Andy Serkis delivers a fully realized performance, to boot. This is Caesar’s story, tip to toe. We see Caesar struggling between making the right decision and being blinded by the rage felt by Koba. Caesar’s internal struggle is the main conflict of the film, and the military stuff exists to supplement it.
Watching the apes flounder in their time without a leader is fascinating. But, every scene comes back to that point. This leads to many repeated themes and discussions that become too on the nose. Also, the film is contemplative to a hobbling degree. Before any major plot points come into play, the film has been going on for well over an hour.
Speaking of which, Woody Harrelson’s colonel is merely an exposition machine. He only gets two one on one scenes with Caesar. And the first scene features him explaining what’s happened so far, what’s happening presently, and what is going to happen to drive the film toward its conclusion. Naturally, Harrelson is great in the part, but he feels wildly underused.
In addition to its methodical pacing, War for the Planet of the Apes features one too many characters. Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape is sure to be a fan favorite. However, I found him annoying. The necessity for a comic relief character is apparent, but he feels out of place in the bleak world the film creates. The character also takes time away from the relationship between Maurice and the little girl they find on their travels. Their relationship is great, but feels incomplete due to the character juggling.
War for the Planet of the Apes doesn’t hit the highs of its predecessors. However, it is incredibly confident. I can’t imagine Matt Reeves pitching this film to a major studio, much less securing financing. He remains an underrated director, capable of finding emotional nooks and crannies in the silliest premises. Furthermore, the set pieces are breathtaking, and feature incredible stakes. Yes, there are some structural and pacing problems. But, the film sticks with you. There’s a thematic weight to the film that surpasses most of its issues. So, make sure to see it with a friend, as the post-film discussions are going to leave you poking around the film’s nooks and crannies long after the closing credits.