War for the Planet of the Apes

There were several moments during War for the Planet of the Apes where the camera zoomed in on Caesar’s face. I was stunned every time. How was it possible that those lifelike eyes were digital? In fact, how was it possible that I was so enamored with a motion captured ape at all? As I watched the final film of the Planet of the Apes trilogy, I wasn’t thinking of any of these things. Instead I was fully invested in the fate of Caesar and his band of apes. Somehow, as he closes out his Apes trilogy, director Matt Reeves has created one of the most emotionally resonant, thought provoking, and thrilling blockbuster franchises ever. Before these movies, it never crossed my mind that the Planet of the Apes franchise could be anything but a goofy sci-fi adventure. Now, as the trilogy draws to a close, I’m stunned at just how much these films have accomplished. With War for the Planet of the Apes, Reeves provides a fitting and deeply moving final chapter for his stunning franchise.

War for the Planet of the Apes picks up where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes left off. The human population has largely been exterminated thanks to the Simian Flu, which also made apes smarter. Now, years later, a band of apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), is fighting a war with the surviving humans, led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who is hellbent on killing the apes. As Caesar tries to lead his pack of apes to safety, he’s inevitably drawn into a final confrontation that will determine the fate of the apes and humanity.      

This franchise has stood apart from many other blockbuster franchises in that it has always treated its viewers with the respect they deserve. War is no different. Unlike many other action blockbusters, it never panders to the lowest common denominator. Instead it weaves a complex story with fully realized characters that covers some dark territory. Even though we’re watching a band of apes, it’s always clear that this movie has a lot to say about humans and their motivations. And yet, while the film is weighty and grim, it’s also a fun. Reeves and co-screenwriter Mark Bomback balance this material almost perfectly, preventing it from slipping into a grim slog while simultaneously maintaining spiritual heft.

While the script and editing do some of this work, much of it is done through impressive motion capture performances. Andy Serkis has become almost synonymous with this technology, and there’s no wonder why. In Caesar, he pulls off the feat of making the seemingly preposterous character of a talking warrior ape not only believable but deeply human. There were scenes in this movie where, just by looking at Caesar’s face, I could feel his complex emotions. And Serkis’ isn’t the only great performance. Steve Zahn, as Bad Ape, lightens the load of an otherwise unrelentingly dark movie without feeling out of place. My favorite ape is Maurice (Karen Konoval) whose reassuring presence gave me hope even as the movie grew increasingly dark.

Ironically, the film’s one major misstep is in its main human character, The Colonel. Compared to all the great character building that’s gone on with the apes, The Colonel is flat. There’s a scene in the middle of the movie where the film clearly tries to give him some depth and fails miserably. During the scene, The Colonel goes on and on explaining his background and his motivations. It’s as though the screenwriters were too lazy to find a better way to explain The Colonel and his hatred of apes. These guys are great at writing within the limits of ape dialog but can’t make an authentic sounding human. Truth be told, I would have been happy if The Colonel had remained a more mysterious figure. I didn’t need to know his back story.

Still, despite its poorly conceived villain, War for the Planet of the Apes is a success. It serves as a fitting end to one of the best film franchises of my lifetime. I can only hope that other filmmakers, as they plot their own summer blockbusters, will look to this trilogy for inspiration.