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‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ review: One of the greatest blockbusters of our time
Spoilers! What happened in that biblical ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ ending?
Andy Serkis is Caesar in “War for the Planet of the Apes” (Courtesy photo | 20th Century Fox)
Call it guerrilla warfare if you must. “War for the Planet of the Apes” wraps a trilogy of films that lure us in with spectacle, but end up ambushing our hearts and minds. They successfully exploit the kinship we feel when we visit the zoo and stare into the eyes of a chimpanzee or bonobo, and instinctually sense the genetic proximity of our closest evolutionary predecessors.
The movies achieve this via motion capture technology, a process in which real people act out scenes in front of the camera, and are painted over with digital animation in post-production. Many films employ this technique, but none with such profound conviction. “War” features a lengthy shot of an orangutan’s face, in close-up, in the clarity of bright daylight, and to peer into his eyes is to sense its advanced compassion and intellect. This is cinematic braggadocio on the part of director Matt Reeves. He’s daring us to find the flaws in the imagery – to not see life in the ape’s eyes.
Steve Zahn is Bad Ape in “War for the Planet of the Apes.” (Courtesy photo | 20th Century Fox)
The bridge over the uncanny valley has never been so effortless to traverse. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so convincing in a movie with a lesser screenplay; “War for the Planet of the Apes” is so rich with character and allegory, it’s easy to lose yourself in the emotion of a dramatic moment. Maybe the consistently engaging writing primes us for manipulation. But I assert that these films – along with Jon Favreau’s 2016 remake of “The Jungle Book” – are, for now, the pinnacle of modern visual effects. For all intents and purposes, these are real apes.
Caesar, the chimpanzee leader of the apes, once again motion-captured by Andy Serkis, famous for bringing life to Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” series. Caesar is the focus of this prequel trilogy, set prior to the events of the classic 1968 “Planet of the Apes.” Director Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011) is his origin story, and a strong film; Caesar is the product of a scientific experiment that rendered him hyperintelligent, but unwittingly unleashed a deadly virus on humans.
Andy Serkis as Caesar in “War for the Planet of the Apes.” (Courtesy photo | 20th Century Fox)
Reeves upped the ante with the extraordinary “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014), in which the rivalry between the benevolent Caesar and the scarred bonobo Koba was the catalyst for a war with the humans, who are, as always, all too willing to participate in acts of destruction. It’s one of the most intelligent blockbusters I’ve ever seen, and the new movie is just as good at balancing big ideas with big thrills.
The Old Testament brother-vs.-brother conflict of “Dawn,” which ends with Caesar killing the tragically corrupt Koba, leads directly to “War,” which could be titled “The New Testament of the Planet of the Apes.” Caesar is tortured by his violation of his kind’s most basic commandment: Ape shall not kill ape. A noble ideologue, he exercises mercy at almost any cost.
Woody Harrelson in “War for the Planet of the Apes.” (Courtesy photo | 20th Century Fox)
Twelve years have passed since the viral outbreak left Earth in a post-apocalyptic chaos. The apes are at war with a human faction led by a crazed militia leader known only as the Colonel, played by a shaved-headed Woody Harrelson in clear homage to Marlon Brando’s iconic madman Colonel Kurtz. (In a tunnel beneath his fortress, graffiti reads, “APE-POCALYPSE NOW,” just to drive the reference home.) Complicating the conflict, a few of Koba’s former ape allies have joined the Colonel’s forces, undergoing willful subjugation in order to align themselves with the more powerful faction; they’re coarsely dubbed Donkeys.
The ape majority backs the charismatic Caesar, though. They live in a cave hidden behind a waterfall in a lush Pacific Northwest forest, but plan to relocate to a hopeful sanctuary beyond a desert, a pilgrimage inevitably fraught with danger. So, yes, tragedy strikes when human hubris meets ape humility, and “War” becomes a shrewd mixture of P.O.W.-camp drama, revenge thriller and combat-action film.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” (Courtesy photo | 20th Century Fox)
Caesar splits from the camp with horse and rifle, joined by his loyal friends: the gentle orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), fearless bonobo Rocket (Terry Notary) and noble gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). They pick up a mute orphan human girl (Amiah Miller), named Nova in a respectful nod to the 1970s films, and a goofy loner chimp who identifies himself as Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a zoo refugee and welcome source of comic relief.
Underscoring the plot is Caesar’s spiritual journey. He’s captured, quasi-crucified and tortured by the Colonel, who is loathsome and cruel, and stokes our ire with alarming potency – I’ll admit to fantasizing a scene in which Caesar grasps the Colonel’s skull and puts his thumbs in his eyes. The film, however, is better than that, avoiding any potential hyperbolic plot resolutions. It’s quietly satisfying amidst the larger-scale chaos of Reeves’ skillfully directed action sequences. We’re just as likely to walk out of the theater discussing a tender, wordless moment between a little girl and a large ape as we are the explosive finale.
Karin Konoval as Maurice and Amiah Miller as Nova in “War for the Planet of the Apes.” (Courtesy photo | 20th Century Fox)
The film is beautifully photographed and edited, poetic in tone and imagery. Yet, without its significant technological achievements, it might be a bogus experience. We can’t really tell where reality ends and the special effects begin, key to our suspension of disbelief, our absorption in the story and our acceptance that the apes are capable of great things – an idealist’s vision of humanity’s best attributes, perhaps. Serkis’ performance is brilliant – he composes a silent symphony in Caesar’s expressions, the primary themes being worry and steadfast resilience. When he’s angry, we feel the same; when his heart breaks, ours does too. Most remarkable is how we so quickly forget this truly great ape is primarily the product of a computer.