After I saw Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes back in 2014, I made the same prediction that everyone else did about how the title for the third and final film in the trilogy was going to be War For The Planet Of The Apes. Although I haven’t been actively thinking about the Apes films the same way I think about the Star Wars franchise, I have been looking forward to this film’s release for years, eagerly awaiting its trailer drop and release date announcement. Well it’s finally here, a film that some of us at GoodBadTaste have prophesied as the best film of the summer, and while it has its flaws and doesn’t have the distinction of being “original” like Baby Driver (2017), it is still without a doubt the best film of the summer and concludes what is probably one of the best trilogies ever made.
The film opens on text blocks that serve as our recap for the previous films in the franchise over a scene going on out of focus in the background. The text dissolves and the camera focuses in on our opening scene: a tracking shot of a small group of human soldiers trekking uphill with various Full Metal Jacket-esque inscriptions on their helmets like “monkey killer.” Even if the reference is lost on you, this opening tells you everything about the movie that you need to know (like a well-made movie should); that the humans are on the attack and are looking to kill some damn dirty apes. By no means is it the other way around. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his Ape brethren, contrary to their human adversaries, have always been above violence, seeking the peaceful route instead of the vengeful and aggressive one. The battle at the very beginning of the film and the infiltration of the Ape village right after are purely defensive battles for the Apes and make you empathize with their struggle.
The poster for this film is misleading and even the presence of War in the title is a misnomer. There is very little ‘war’ in this movie. Instead, the film exists mostly as a drama that follows Caesar, after an assassination attempt on his life, as he forgets his peaceful mindset to seek revenge on the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who spearheaded the troops in the attack on the village in the beginning. Caesar’s internal struggle that is present throughout the film is compelling, not only because he is our protagonist but because it directly relates to his relationship with humans. As humans ourselves, we can’t help but relate to the human characters on screen and identify with their struggle to survive. However, everything that has happened in the Apes universe has been wrought by humans. Humans created the Simian Flu that nearly wiped out their own species, the human’s violent and abusive nature was what sent Koba, Dawn’s main antagonist, over the edge, and now they feel the need to correct their mistake by killing the Apes and even other humans who continue to be affected by the disease. The many references to classic war films like Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Apocalypse Now (1979), films that display humanity’s violent nature and the futility of war, further emphasizes this point. Caesar struggles to transcend his humanity, not maintain it. The other Apes look to him as their sole leader and will monkey-do whatever they monkey-see him do, so his intense desire for vengeance threatens to overpower his intelligence and level head as a leader, which puts him at odds with the Apes and those closest to him.
Visually and technically, this film is a marvel. Every shot choice is perfect, and the opening scenes with the soldiers attacking the Apes are masterful in terms of the visual storytelling at hand and the use of sound cutting in and out to build tension. My favorite instance of this is a shot where a soldier has an Ape’s arm reach out and grab his shoulder, but a quick pan reveals this Ape to be an ally of the humans, one who is part of a small number of Apes who rebelled against Caesar in the previous film and stayed with the humans out of fear for his retaliation against them. It really lends itself to enriching the story further and making you say, “Oh yeah that totally would happen,” which is always a satisfying moment to have as an audience member. The best creative choice made in the film is the use of so many close ups. The close ups in War are so well executed that Tom Hooper should watch this movie if he ever wants to make another film ever again. They heighten the drama of every scene in which they’re used amazingly and they celebrate how good the visual effects are and how far they’ve come. Seriously, they’re so good that director Matt Reeves did not feel the need to shy around using close-ups on them. You really feel like you’re looking at Apes on screen, and the effects never get in the way of the actors behind them giving compelling performances. The human actors are also great. Woody Harrelson, as the Colonel, I was on the fence about. His character is clearly meant to evoke a combination of Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List (1993) and Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now (1979), but he’s not as charismatic and his character doesn’t have the same build up. His delivery of the dialogue is what sold me on his character more than any kind of emoting, but he proved he can do a desperate fringe lunatic.
While I watched this film I couldn’t help but compare it to Die Hard (1988) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), two movies that many would consider masterpieces of the action genre. I didn’t necessarily make this comparison for the sake of elevating War (even though it, along with the other films in the franchise, certainly belongs in the same discussion of action greats) but to sort of dampen my expectations. Die Hard and Fury Road are not complexly written films by any means. What makes them so good is their execution of a simple premise in a way that makes sense in that film’s world with action sequences that have stakes. They both transcend the nonsensical plots and emotionless action beats of lesser Hollywood action films. Since War is not a very action heavy film, I was expecting a more complex dramatic story than I received and an ending that was not just another action sequence at the climax. A climax, which felt so over the top – especially compared to the methodically executed actions scenes at the beginning – that it felt jarring. Dawn worked as well as it did because you had enough characters interacting with each other to where the drama felt Shakespearean and the action was all very exciting and had high stakes for both sides of the conflict. War is different because it’s Caesar’s movie and no one else’s. He’s much more interesting than John McClane and Max Rockatansky. It’s hard to carry an action film, and a dramatically compelling one at that, by yourself, and the fact that Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis are able to do as well as they do is nothing short of impressive. If the other characters have to speak in exposition sometimes to keep the movie going, then that’s fine. The action at the end is honestly still good and makes sense for the story the film has established, it just goes a little overboard in trying to give Caesar all of his moments that the execution feels a little cliché. But that’s totally fine. You’re watching a movie about sentient apes riding horses, shooting guns, and teaching a mute little girl sign language. You’re going to be in that theater (and you absolutely have to see this movie in a theater) to have a good time. Obviously more blockbusters should strive to be as good as this entire trilogy has been, but remember where these movies came from: a weird sci-fi movie where a guy crash lands on a planet where apes can talk and have sophisticated knowledge of science and systems of government and religion. I’m sorry but that’s just silly, and that’s just the first movie! The sequels that involve a doomsday weapon in the planet’s core get really out there.
So when you go see this movie, which you must pay money to see and I insist you do, check your cynicism and expectations at the door. You’re going to get a quality film going experience, but one based on talking, gun-toting Apes that fling shit at soldiers.
War For The Planet Of The Apes is a strong finish for the Apes reboot trilogy. Andy Serkis carries the film flawlessly, acting his way through some of the best visual effects out there, ultimately giving us a film that’s as fun as it is dramatic and thought provoking.