Confession: I didn’t see the new “Planet of the Apes” movies until this year. The worst part? I’ve owned both installments on Blu-ray since 2014, but have never gotten around to actually watching the films until recently. Blown away by the mastery of both films, but more so with its second installment, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” I couldn’t believe how I missed out on these films for so long, and immediately became pumped for the upcoming third installment, “War for the Planet of the Apes.” With returning director Matt Reeves taking the reins of the new sequel, “War for the Planet of the Apes” has a high bar to clear following the previous installment, and with a completely separate story than the previous installment, Reeves would have to work hard to hit the ground running for “War for the Planet of the Apes” if he planned to make anything within the same realm as “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”
And it’s not as good as “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” It’s better.
Two years after the events for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” took place, we pick up on the apes during an attack by a military team comprised of what is left of the U.S. military, led by a cruel, unnamed Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a harsh, bigoted man with a personal vendetta against the apes. After suffering heavy collective and personal losses, Caesar (Andy Serkis) is forced to abandon his tribe to seek retribution on the sadistic colonel and his army of blind followers. Accompanied by Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary), they travel to the North to the base for the military. Along the way, the apes discover Nova (Amiah Miller), a mute girl orphaned by the war who makes a connection with Maurice, as well as Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), an intelligent former zoo ape, childlike in nature, who helps the apes reach the base. Upon arrival, Caesar and the apes discover something for more horrific and cruel than they ever could’ve imagined.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” is perhaps one of the most hard-hitting blockbusters to hit theaters in recent memory, but it almost feels insincere to call the film a blockbuster, as its plot more so resembles that of a gritty war film than anything. While the film is beautiful, bombastic and full of wonderful visual effects, these are all used to amplify the film’s incredibly dark, heavy, emotional tone to it that Reeves constructs like a master. But not only that, “War for the Planet of the Apes” has a unique distinction of an actual moral dilemma at the root of its story that isn’t just a simple anti-hero questioning. Audiences are faced with the question of a two sided war, but are confronted with the fact that the side we as audience members would be on in the reality of said war is not the side we’re rooting for in the film. In fact, there comes a point in “War for the Planet of the Apes” where I expressly wished for the death of all humans because quite frankly, we deserved it. Even worse, the reality of “War for the Planet of the Apes” doesn’t feel too far fetched. Of course, super-intelligent apes waging war against humanity isn’t particularly plausible (as of yet), but the way in which humanity reacts to these beings they do not understand is something I unfortunately can see playing out very clearly unfortunately. This film really pulls forth the worst that humanity has to offer and forces us to stare at it blankly.
As before, Serkis gives a motion capture performance worthy of an Oscar as Caesar, and once again, I’m certain the Academy will exclude him from all talks since it’s not a “legitimate” performance. This doesn’t change the power that Serkis lends to this role, one that feels truly like a leader and a revolutionary. Often times films with so-called “chosen ones” that lead a group of people to freedom are nothing more than attractive figure heads used by studios for financial success, but Serkis’ Caesar is a revolutionary in every fiber of his being, every bone in his body, and every hair on his head, and for this to come from a CGI motion capture performance is not something to be taken lightly. Harrelson is also great as The Colonel, who is a frighteningly charismatic man with a truly atrocious intent for the apes. What’s best about Harrelson’s performance is that Harrelson is still fairly likable even when he’s playing a genocidal maniac, which really makes this quite a believable character, as unlikable sociopaths don’t get anywhere. Hitler had to win over Germany before the Holocaust, just as Joseph Stalin did for Russia. This makes his large following all the more legitimate, and his impact altogether more frightening. Casting someone as charismatic and inherently likable as Harrelson was a smart move, as even in the Human-Ape War, wanting to “have a beer” with a leader is somehow still important.
Shot in the forests of British Columbia, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a stark, beautiful and bleak film that is as carefully crafted as something like “Schindler’s List” is. This isn’t some over-the-top action film with massive sequences of chaos, but a carefully constructed piece of art that treads lightly on its subject, but still painfully reflective of the past we’re slowly coming to realize we have yet to learn from. With the white snow contrasting the bleak, neutral toned camp where the base is located, contrasted with the lush evergreens in the start of the film make the film (literally) feel cold and elusive in look alone, seemingly impenetrable from an outside perspective. This way of distancing itself from the audience makes “War for the Planet of the Apes” feel much more like a brutal war film than an sci-fi action film, and the fact they still kept this at a PG-13 rating is beyond me. Not only this, once more the “Planet of the Apes” series sets a benchmark for visual effects in filmmaking. There will not be another film this year, or perhaps until the next installment of the series that is as masterfully rendered and crafted in CGI than “War for the Planet of the Apes” is. This is a stunning achievement in visual effects, something that this series continues to raise the bar on on its own.
Opened up from “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” turn in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio into the wider 2.35:1 ratio, I initially was hesitant to Reeves opening the film to a look of a more standard blockbuster, especially after “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” used its less-common aspect ratio quite well, but I found with “War for the Planet of the Apes,” this new aspect ratio really helps the film feel larger in scale than its predecessor, and much less intimate. The film this time around is more about the collective of the apes rather than an intimate story of survival, making this change quite effective.
While the first installment, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” was only released in 2D, its sequel, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was released in 3D, to which the effect was truly stunning. “War for the Planet of the Apes” is also receiving a 3D release, which I can only assume will be of a stunning nature. Seeing that 20th Century Fox screened the film so far in advance for critics (I saw the film 9 days prior to this publishing date), I can’t fault them for only showing us the film in 2D, but if precedent follows, “War for the Planet of the Apes” will be a wonderfully lush, beautiful and subtly engaging film in the 3D format. And yet, once again, Fox does not release the film in IMAX, leaving me to wonder for a third time what could have been.
And much like his work in “The Book of Henry” and soon in my review for “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Michael Giacchino’s score here is the stuff of dreams. This is an absolutely perfect score to match the bleak, stark nature of the film that better garner him at least a nomination for Best Original Score at the Oscars this year, if not a full-blown win. Giacchino is proving himself to be the best of the best here.
I’m not commenting on many of the plot elements of “War for the Planet of the Apes” because I wasn’t aware of what happens in the film until watching it, which made the overall experience of the film far more hard-hitting than it would have been had I known of them, so if you still struggle to understand what “War for the Planet of the Apes” is about, take that as a good sign and run with it. But please take my word for it, with this film and “Wonder Woman,” summer 2017 is covered in its way of masterful big-budget cinema. While “Wonder Woman” hits in a more inspiring, upbeat, twist on the blockbuster, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is the anti-blockbuster, with a heavy, borderline oppressive plot that isn’t one to lift spirits. Even the retribution in the film is depressing as hell, making “War for the Planet of the Apes” a very tough film to grasp if you don’t know what to expect, but one that is incredibly fulfilling for those willing to run with something that isn’t your typical run-of-the-mill summer film. “War for the Planet of the Apes” leaves bruises; glorious, glorious bruises.
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Toby Kebbell, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer, Terry Notary, and introducing Amiah Miller.
Runtime: 140 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images.
Also available in RealD 3D and premium large format theaters.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” releases in theaters on July 14th.
Twentieth Century Fox presents, a Chernin Entertainment production, a Matt Reeves film, “War for the Planet of the Apes”