After the release of Tim Burton’s critically-panned Planet of the Apes in 2001, it must said that many were a bit dubious about 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (this reviewer included).
But the subsequent reboot series, which has charted how apes come to be the dominant species on the planet Earth, has proven to be a surprisingly philosophical, powerful affair. Which is to say: Oh my god, how wrong we were. It was a clever cinematic idea all along. (Yes, they finally made a monkey out of meeee.)
Rise saw medical experimentation gone wrong, which ultimately lead to super intelligent apes and a virus that decimated the human population. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we saw the evolved apes – led by the compassionate Caesar (Andy Serkis) – threatened by a band of human survivors.
Director Matt Reeves follows up those previous two installments with War for the Planet of the Apes, with the ape community trying to negotiate peace and protect themselves from a band of human soldiers. The Colonel (Woody Harrelson channeling strong Apocalypse Now Colonel Kurtz vibes) leads the soldiers, who see him as a mythic figure. But when the apes suffer unimaginable losses in conflict, Caesar’s push for peace falters. He wants revenge.
This premise is established quite quickly, and from there we follow Caesar and a select few of his trusted companions as they set out to confront the Colonel and his men. As for the other intelligent apes, they set off on their own journey in order to find a safe haven for their newly intelligent species.
So Caesar has abandoned his people in his quest for vengeance, but there’s no Brutus around to stab him in the back. What Caesar confronts in War is not a rival, like the hate-filled Koba (Toby Kebbell) from Rise and Dawn. Instead, he faces up to the similarities that he and Koba share – a darkness within. If this sounds very self-serious, well, it is.
War does more than reference the previously mentioned Apocalypse Now; it also draws upon imagery associated with the Holocaust, American slavery, and biblical tales. (Apes are strung up on crosses, so it’s not a stretch of anyone's imagination)
While these allusions aren’t exactly subtle, it’s still so refreshing to see a blockbuster aiming for intelligence and nuance that you can forgive a little self-importance. This is a grim, gritty tale of CGI apes. It’s a credit to Reeves that the laughs are few and far between (relatively speaking), especially during a scene in which a silverback gorilla rides a horse.
The motion-capture used to bring the apes to life – particularly Andy Serkis’ Caesar and Karin Konoval’s Maurice – is as impressive as ever, so much so that you should expect to see many calls to, “give Andy Serkis an Oscar already!” Every curled lip, every flicker of the eyes, every tense hunching of the shoulders is incredibly human.
The special effects suspend disbelief so completely that no part of the film seems unlikely. Of course a chimpanzee could use a rocket launcher. Of course an orangutan could become the primary carer for a human child. Of course an ape could show more humanity, as a moral quality, than a man.
A poignant narrative and impressive special effects (allegedly) end this blockbuster trilogy. Unless, of course, more mercenary heads prevail. Don't be surprised if in a few years we get a Building the CBD of the Apes. I for one would be interested in seeing more of chimp bureaucracy in action.
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