The trilogy began better than the material deserved; it ends better than we deserve.
All of human history has led to this moment. The irony is we created you, and nature has been punishing us ever since.
In one scene in War for the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves’ powerful and poetic trilogy-capper, Caesar is wrestling with his demons. You might say that the grizzled chimp and taciturn clan leader is worried about the state of his soul; ever since he dispatched the traitorous Koba at the end of Dawn of…the Apes, he’s asked himself if he made the right choice, and what he could have done differently to prevent the war his friend unleashed.
But now, after a devastating attack on his family sets Caesar on a path of vengeance, he realizes that the hate smoldering in his heart isn’t that different from Koba’s. What seemed so irrational and twisted before could be easily labeled as “justice.” And Caesar becomes alarmed by his own thoughts, but feels equally powerless to turn aside.
Of course, it’s that kind of self-reflection that separates Caesar from the paranoid cynicism of his brethren on both sides of the barricade. It’s also what separates this Apes trilogy from the industry’s usual blockbuster fare. In the first installment, Rise, there was a sense of genuine surprise, like 20th Century Fox was just trying to monetize some old intellectual property and accidentally made something resembling art. Rupert Wyatt is a fine director, and Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver’s screenplay possessed unexpected depth, but few would have guessed that what began as “Really, James Franco is a scientist!” would lead us here six years later, to these beautiful images, to the complexity of these characters and themes, and to one of the greatest sustained performances of the 21st century from Andy Serkis as the monkey in the middle.
And it’s true that any praise of this series begins with Serkis, but first I want to talk about director Matt Reeves, who co-wrote War’s script with Mark Bomback and clearly loves these characters more than anyone. Part of what made 2014’s Dawn (the order of those titles is still weird, no matter how War’s opening text tries to spin it) so rewarding is the trust Reeves placed in his collaborators. That of course includes motion capture legends Serkis, Terry Notary as the loyal Rocket (playing an ape for the second time this year after the disappointing Kong: Skull Island), Karin Konoval as everyone’s favorite orangutan Maurice, and Toby Kebbell as Koba, but also the wizards at Weta Digital who add the fur to those indelible performances.
Reeves let long stretches of Dawn play out in near-silence, holding on closeups of the apes’ expressive faces, only delivering the tentpole bombast once the groundwork was painstakingly laid in the first two acts. Dawn was the apes’ story, but the human characters of Jason Clarke and Keri Russell were more than tokens. The tension came from the inevitability of conflict; even if everyone wants peace in the abstract, it only takes one bad apple to destroy what others have worked for. And both sides will always have bad apples.
War is a different kind of film, but Reeves’ techniques haven’t changed. If anything, he’s even more reliant on his talented cast and crew. The animation is staggeringly photorealistic; Michael Seresin’s cinematography is stunning, full of rich contrast; Michael Giacchino’s emotional score is one of his very best, utilizing tribal drums, booming choirs, and the most fragile piano motifs. If Dawn proved what was possible, an experimental film on a studio budget, War has the swagger of an Old Hollywood epic.
Reeves famously had to “learn on the job” when he jumped onto Dawn on a tight schedule. But here he’s in total control, whether he’s aping (heh) the overhead jungle shots of Platoon, the snowcapped vistas on horseback of The Searchers, the startling brutality of Schindler’s List, the clever heroism of The Great Escape, or — perhaps most of all — the scale and raw power of The Ten Commandments, starring Caesar as the Moses leading his people to the Promised Land. That War is a potent concentration of these ideas and not a mishmash, not the latest two-and-a-half-hour blockbuster trying to “do too much,” is maybe the most fascinating thing about it.
I’m reluctant to go into more detail about the plot than I already have, though as a story allegorical in nature it’s not dependent on twists. War for the Planet of the Apes is about the lengths we will go to protect what makes us human — the ability to think, and feel, and express ourselves — even at great personal cost. Every single scene reflects this. It posits that the story of our kind is one of recurring subjugation, of one civilization or tribe thinking themselves superior to another, and how the consequences of that mindset can ripple across generations. Dawn felt startlingly contemporary with Koba’s “false flag” attack, but War reaches back into our history, painting on an appropriately larger canvas, to remind us that none of this is new.
That doesn’t preclude new characters, however, beginning with Woody Harrelson’s sadistic Colonel; as the leader of a rogue military group calling themselves “Alpha/Omega” (a callback to one of the original films), he’s the Kurtz of this Ape-pocalypse Now. Harrelson plays the Colonel as just this side of hinged, his jaw clenched, a smirk perpetually playing around the edge of his mouth. His conversations with Caesar are a few of the film’s highlights, not least for how the Colonel’s stated rationale for exterminating the apes — the ones he can’t turn, anyway — rocks Caesar to his core.
It’s also a credit to Reeves that every performer opposite the apes plays their part with the utmost seriousness. Fortunately, while War is a heavy and at times bleak film, it’s not levity-free. That’s mostly thanks to Steve Zahn as Bad Ape, a former zoo escapee that Caesar and his crew stumble upon. Bad Ape has learned how to talk like a human, but he’s amusingly childlike — a fretful Smeagol to Caesar’s single-minded hero. Amiah Miller plays the other new human, a mute girl Maurice finds and adopts, and who becomes the symbol of mankind’s descent as the apes rise. Miller, Konoval, Notary, and Michael Adamthwaite (as the hulking gorilla Luca) have to rely almost exclusively on their physicality rather than dialogue, but the payoffs come in surprising ways, moving us without uttering a single word.
But up to the very last frame, this is Caesar’s story. And as such, it’s Andy Serkis’ film. I don’t know what more I could add to the chorus of hosannas for his performance in this series (I wrote an elaborate fake Oscar history just so I could give him one), but it’s a generational achievement. From Caesar’s privileged childhood, to his first tentative steps into leadership, from triumph to betrayal and back again, and throughout the Exodus to Deuteronomy journey he takes in this film, Serkis has performed every step with stately grace and uncommon humanity. He’s now been critical to the defining film trilogies of two different decades, and he’s made it look so easy it’s no wonder so many still don’t really understand what’s gone into it. Credit the animators for realism, but it’s Serkis that provides the soul.
War of the Planet of the Apes is a triumph for everyone involved, and it will stand the test of time — the kind of film that will be just as relevant 20 or 50 years from now. Hopefully, this trilogy won’t be the last of its kind. Studios shouldn’t have to sacrifice gracefulness for “darkness,” or intelligence for excitement, or maturity for audience appeal. Maybe, like the apes, we can evolve. Maybe.