Review: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

war_for_the_planet_of_the_apes_review_caesar

No monkey business: Chernin Entertainment/20th Century Fox

The new Apes movies, up to and including WAR OF THE PLANET OF THE APES are pretty special. They’re respectful of what has come before in the franchise, but not afraid to reinvent it. They want to be far-reaching conceptually, but relevant subtextually, and they are both. A lot of this is thanks to the star and the director, more on both later.

As the simian flu virus continues to ravage what little remains of human society, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of intelligent apes continue to carve out their own place in the world. When a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson) raids Caesar’s camp and takes the ape’s nearest and dearest from him, Caesar is forced into increasingly rash action to defend his species.

Shall we just take a moment to appreciate how versatile a director Matt Reeves is? From intimate extended scenes of apes hanging out and chatting in sign language to a version of the Battle of Helm’s Deep…but with apes and the finale of ZERO DARK THIRTY…but with apes, there seems very little he can’t do. While nothing is quite as striking as the last film’s initial silent stretch or Koba’s tank hijacking, you can still look forward to fireworks, intensity and original imagery throughout.

I loved that the war of the title isn’t what you expect. After all, only humanity is stupid enough to still propagate warfare after the world as we know it has come to an end. The Colonel and his encounters with Caesar are pleasingly difficult to predict as well and thankfully the story doesn’t come down to man good, apes bad, but as always with this series it’s, man complicated, apes less so.

Serkis clearly used Clint Eastwood as his reference point for Caesar in this film. While he’s the most gifted with spoken language among his kind, he’s still economic in his speech by human standards and he’s got a great withering glare and he becomes a Bill Munny from UNFORGIVEN-esque vengeful loner as the plot progresses. It’s this need for revenge, that very human desire, that causes Caesar to make mistakes and to put his kind in further jeopardy, whatever his original intentions were. Harrelson’s Colonel is built up a lot so you expect some grand revelation about his identity, but again he isn’t what you expect and his justification for his actions may well be pretty ordinary and all the scarier for that. The strange parker-wearing hermit Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) is the real breakout in this film. It’s always Caesar’s story and Serkis’ playground, but in this new character something endearing, incongruous and thoughtfully funny is created.

Apes’ apishness is used wittily as a plot point on several occasions. The majority of ape interactions are still signed and subtitled (what other blockbuster wouldn’t have found an excuse for more verbose apes by now?). Reeves has faith in his audience being engrossed enough in this world and compelled by the simian characters for these scenes to flow like a standard scene of dialogue. We also get a display of distressed ape hitherto never seen in a film since it was possible to create photorealistic primates. It’s a pleasant moment of light relief in an otherwise gloomy film, and I won’t ruin it by describing it exactly – you’ll know it when you see it.

Nova and Cornelius, Alpha & Omega. Reeves is an Apes superfan, and peppers the new film with references to what has come before and/or is still to come. You could read these as earlier versions of the same characters, which would make the original film’s sophisticated ape society only a couple of decades away (unlikely) or you can read them a cyclical nods to the series history, much as the new Caesar is a tribute to the original from the end of ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES.

Speaking of referencing what has come before, I love Michael Giacchino’s work on the score here. Jerry Goldsmith’s distinct unsettling high-pitched refrains are used sparingly at key moments and Giacchino’s music in general conjures the appropriate moody atmosphere and palpable tension, in addition to proving his aptitude for revitalising and remixing soundtracks we know, much like Reeves does with his movies.

There is no need to carry on this story any further. It has been told. War for the Planet of the Apes resolves organically and satisfyingly. We know where this particular tale is heading and all the characters involved at this point have reached their  natural end point. It’s vibrant and thoughtful and expansive in a pristinely rendered film world. The line between the real and the motion-captured characters has never been so blurred and summer blockbusters have seldom been this rich a viewing experience. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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