The recent revival of the Apes franchise has managed to defy all expectations by not only being a worthy entry into the franchise, but also being strong films on their own merit. Working as a kind-of-prequel-reboot of the old franchise, and ignoring the Tim Burton film completely, it is strange to realise this is only the third film since the reboot. Lesser franchises would have churned out one every year or two, and be up to part five by now, but not the Apes films. It genuinely feels like they are taking time to ensure each film is worthy. Which is where another expectation is defied – the films don’t seem to diminish in quality, nor feel repetitive. Each entry so far has had its own feel and worked to move the story along. War for the Planet of the Apes is no exception, and is one of the finest blockbuster films of this year.
It has been 15 years since the events of the first film, and the release of the Simian Flu virus that wiped out a large percentage of humanity. The events of the second film saw the start of conflict between the apes and humans, instigated by Koba who defied Caesar’s leadership. Now, humanity are hunting down the apes, with one Colonel (Woody Harrelson) in particular striving to wipe them out entirely. When that Colonel attacks Caesar’s tribe, killing those close to him, it sets the ape leader off on a personal revenge journey, with only a few of his most loyal followers supporting him on the way. However, along the way they encounter two new recruits, an ape hermit who has also developed speech, and a young human girl who is showing signs of a new strain of the Simian virus.
It is a testament to the motion captured performances and the quality of the CGI on offer that at no point during the film do you not believe that the apes on screen are real. There’s a line in the film where Harrelson’s Colonel comments on how human looking Caesar’s eyes are, and whilst you could see that in the context of the film series’ arc (apes are becoming the new rulers, usurping humanity, and so are becoming more human), you can also see it as a nod to how the ‘uncanny valley’ dead-eye stare that plagues CGI in film is entirely absent here. Indeed, given that every scene in this relatively moderate $150million budget film is an effect shot, as apes are present throughout, it is jaw dropping that it looks a far more polished film than, for example, the $265million budgeted Rogue One – a film which tried desperately with two key CGI characters and failed so hard in the brief screen time they had. Over all the Apes series has impressed with the effects work, but here it is pretty much flawless.
But it isn’t all about the effects. In fact the action-packed film the trailers seemed to hint at is instead a thoughtful, character-driven revenge journey, with only short bursts of action. This is Caesar’s dark-journey of the soul, the end result of his attempts to live a peaceful co-existence with a humanity that fears him and his kind. Many comparisons can be drawn to films such as Apocalypse Now (something the film is aware of and manages to drop a reference to as a result), where a troubled individual, tired of war, seeks a crazed Colonel who is amassing his own army for an unknown purpose. The two core leads in their respective roles give their all. Serkis acting to a high degree, and giving genuine life to Caesar, and Harrelson gone completely Brando in his part, menacing without being overbearing.
The journey itself is a compelling story, and the support characters, some who we already know (Maurice, Luca and Rocket) acting as the conscience and the advisers to the troubled Caesar. The new additions, Amiah Miller’s war orphan who Maurice adopts on their journey, and Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) offer heart and comic relief respectively. The comic timing is perfectly placed, never feeling forced, and being deftly used to offer a glimmer of hope and joy in what is otherwise a very dark tale.
The film, overall, nicely rounds out the trilogy, whilst still leaving room for future films down the line. Matt Reeves’ direction makes effective use of his cast and settings, whilst the score by Michael Giacchino has grown more ‘ape-inspired’ since he scored the previous film, reflecting in its drums and pipes the more primate nature manner the world is taking as technology and humanity dwindles.
“Apes together strong!” is Caesar’s mantra. Indeed, all three Apes films, when viewed together, can be seen as one impressive, strong story, with a genuine progression throughout. A third film in a franchise usually derails and loses the way. Not here as this is one of the finest examples of intelligent blockbuster that you will find.