War for the Planet of the Apes is much more than your average summer blockbuster. There’s no hand-holding to be found here; it’s near-silent, oft subtitled, methodically paced, brave filmmaking from director Matt Reeves. This is one ape’s personal story unravelled on a grand scale, with the highest of stakes. There’s not enough room for both humans and apes to coexist and only one way for the score to be settled between the two…
War. Yet, war is a multi-faceted beast. In terms of straight up human on ape warfare, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes remains the champion of the series (there’s not a machine gun toting ape to be seen this time around). War brings something different to the table though, an unexpected approach to the conflict. Think more along the lines of The Great Escape rather than Saving Private Ryan. In an age where sequels are growing bigger and bigger, bloating into games of one-upmanship with themselves, the lower key take is as refreshing as it is unpredictable. This is a film that marches to its own beat. And though occasionally (particularly in the midsection) that beat can be a touch meandering, it’s consistently gripping and powerful.
At the forefront of it all is head honcho of the apes, Caesar, played to perfection by Andy Serkis via Weta Digital’s motion capture technology. Serkis is at a career best level here, tracking Caesar’s journey from compassionate leader to vengeful solo act, and all the way back again deftly, using simple, subtle and expressive communication alongside his character’s limited speech. it really is mesmerising stuff, brought to life incredibly by the magic of Weta’s animation, which honestly at this stage is just preposterously impressive. If the ape’s fur, skin texture and a general sense of weight weren’t enough to convince you of their believability, then the multitude of gorgeous close-ups of their incredible eyes will be. With mo-cap creations past, it’s so often been the slightly inhuman eyes that have sent them tumbling down into the uncanny valley. Here, they are the ape’s biggest selling point.
No more so is this the case than with Caesar, whose hard stare says a thousand words. The presence of his deceased former subject and betrayer Koba (Toby Kebbell) looms over the film, and over Caesar himself, filling him with regret. And in light of further betrayal and bloodshed, Koba’s hate fueled vendetta against humanity in Dawn suddenly seems more understandable to Caesar, sending him on a heartbreak filled Odyssey. The source of his fury is Woody Harrelson’s cold and calculated Colonel, who delivers death to the doorstep of the apes.
The Colonel provides an intimidating villain, with Harrelson all glare and snarl, uncompromisingly nasty and yet simultaneously relatable. As Koba’s actions from before seemingly become more justifiable, so do The Colonel’s (even if those in his own army might disagree). It’s all about survival, after all. In spite of Harrelson’s brilliance, however, his character also provides the only moment of the movie that feels forced, delivering an exposition dump that sadly takes a step away from the subtlety showcased throughout.
Barring this, we’re looking at a near-perfect end to a near-perfect series of films. Both heart wrenching and heartwarming, featuring a stunning drum-laden score, beautiful production design ranging from a Skull Island-like forest camp to snow covered mountain ranges, one of the scenes of the year, interesting new additions to the cast of characters, and a fascinating climax for those we’ve come to know and love. This is how you end a trilogy.
Rating (out of 5):