It is possible that a film can have a solid script with narrative depth and
authentic emotion while also working as a spectacular big-budget adventure.
Consider "War for the Planet of the Apes," a riveting action-drama of complex
ideas and narrative elegance. It is the third in a series which ambitiously
began with 2011's "Rise
of the Planet of the Apes" and 2014's "Dawn
of the Planet of the Apes," and also happens to be the best one yet.
With a clear, organic vision guiding the way, returning writer-director Matt
Reeves (2010's "Let Me In") and co-writer Mark Bomback (2015's "Insurgent") have
made something thoughtful yet artistically dazzling. Never does it have that
unmistakable made-by-committee smell of so many expensive studio features of
It has been fifteen years since the Simian Flu wiped out much of the world's
population, leaving the remaining humans at odds against a primate uprising. A
military unit spearheaded by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) has been sent to find
the secret command center where leader of the apes Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his
tribe reside. Caesar desperately wants to find a way to bridge the contentious
divide between apes and humans, but all of this changes when two cold-blooded
murders hit close to home. Level-headed ally Maurice (Karin Konoval) warns that
his visceral desire for vengeance is threatening to turn him into Koba (Toby
Kebbell), a former friend-turned-foe whose hatred of humans led to his death.
Caesar sees it in himself, too, but the damage has been done. He cannot back
down until the person who took away his loved ones pays.
"War for the Planet of the Apes" has the vitality, the grit, and the
unsuspecting humanity of classic war cinema, the build-up of its two
predecessors leading to a wholly satisfying, provocatively composed crescendo.
Part road odyssey, part captivity drama, part rousing rescue yarn, the film
transfigures into something new and fresh roughly every half-hour. Gutsy
metaphors for some of history's most shameful stains (e.g., slavery,
segregation, Nazism) aren't exactly subtle, but this forthright boldness works
within a life-or-death tale that has no time for reservation and pleasantries.
Enhancing director Matt Reeves' astute whole is Michael Giacchino's (2004's "The
Incedibles") dynamic, propulsive music score, a catalog of one powerhouse track
after the next, and Michael Seresin's (2004s "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of
Azkaban ") fluid cinematography of a world lapsed into desolation and chaos. As
for the magnificent visual effects on display, there is nary a wrong step to be
found as the bar is once more raised in terms of its photo-realism of hair, skin
and body movement. Indeed, the days of computer-generated characters with "dead
eyes" appear to be long gone.
Over three pictures, Caesar has become an arresting, sympathetic protagonist,
Andy Serkis' (2015's "Avengers:
Age of Ultron") stunning performance growing in dimensions while
walking hand-in-hand with the motion-capture wizardry that completes the
illusion of a highly evolved, living and breathing ape. Simply put, Serkis
should instantly be a leading actor awards front-runner, his work as intense,
demanding and powerful as just about any an actor has given in 2017. He carries
the film, a key tragedy Caesar experiences early on the catalyst for the fateful
journey which follows.
Serkis' remarkable turn is complemented by those around him. Karin Konoval
(2014's "Step Up: All In") continues to be a wonderful, faithful Maurice, her
character's nurturing ways suddenly given new importance when the ape rescues an
orphaned child, Nova (Amiah Miller), and convinces Caesar to allow him to bring
her along. Initially, it seems as if bringing a child into the story is a
contrivance. By the end, it feels like anything but, her participation becoming
all the more crucial as grim new revelations come to light. New to the series,
Steve Zahn (2013's "Dallas Buyers Club") is an instant scene-stealer as Bad Ape,
a lonely zoo escapee looking for a place to belong. In a film requiring a
certain tonal darkness and morose gravitas, Zahn provides much-needed,
thankfully unforced levity. On the human side, there are only two prominent
figures: Woody Harrelson's (2009's "Zombieland")
chilling Colonel, demanding subordination from his soldiers while looking out
from on high, his ruthless view of apes originating from a harrowing past of his
own, and Amiah Miller's (2016's "Lights Out") mute Nova. Miller is a natural
young actor with the gift of effortlessly expressing everything without having
to say anything.
When "War for the Planet of the Apes" reaches its quietly bittersweet yet fully
earned ending, one is of two minds: the story told over the last three movies
has been an intimate one and reached its natural conclusion, but there is a
larger apocalyptic tale that has been barely scratched. When all we've seen has
taken place in and around California, there has been little chance to explore
what has been happening on the other side of the country—or world, for that
matter. It's a minor observation, but valid (after all, "Planet" is in the
title). With that said, the challenging microcosm with which director Matt
Reeves has explored racism, class division, national discord, fear and survival,
and, yes, the hell of war, is not to be discounted. A blue-ribbon technical
achievement with plenty of vividly contemplative layers underneath, "War for the
Planet of the Apes" is an adult-minded summer tent pole providing the requisite
eye candy without sacrificing its intellect or storytelling maturity.