In the concluding part of this modern Planet of the Apes trilogy, you’d be forgiven for expecting full-on action for Caesar and his pals as their fight for the earth continues.
But, if you’re anticipating apes with all guns blazing then director Matt Reeves, the incredibly talented WETA Digital team and the ever-underappreciated Andy Serkis have a very big surprise for you.
In the final chapter, Caesar (mo-capped Serkis) has become a legendary figure to both the apes and humans, held in reverence and fear by both sides. On the run and in hiding, Caesar’s world is shattered when an ambush from the humans (led by Harrelson’s Colonel) leads to very personal losses.
Against the wishes of the rest of the apes, Caesar heads off on a quest for vengeance, endangering the apes’ future and his own.
Mixing up a degree of a simian Band of Brothers, an end-of-times Western and a psychological rumination, War for the Planet of the Apes is not your average blockbuster thrill-ride, but an absorbing conclusion to a consistently intelligent and entertaining series.
The power of this trilogy has been about the clashes of ideologies, the divisive line between human and animal, and the perilous balance between descending into madness or walking a straight line. In War for the Planet of the Apes, it’s Caesar whose journey is the most important, and who stands to lose the most after deciding on a course of revenge.
Thankfully, a wonderfully nuanced turn from Serkis imbues this outing with the requisite and expected emotional depth that we’ve come to expect from the series. And while the signs are on the wall (quite literally throughout) of another paean to Apocalypse Now, thanks to a Kurtz-like turn from an almost messianic Harrelson, those behind the script deserve to be commended for not launching into a salvo of bullets flying and explosions – well, right away at least.
“These apes manage to mirror our lives and future pre-occupations in ways that may actually surprise cinemagoers.”
In fact, it’s the near-mournful script that elevates this from the primal mud; early parts of the movie have a Western feel to them as Caesar and his small troop move on after a tension-filled action burst of a beginning. It’s just as well, because the gravitas-laden script and execution thereof is slightly muddied by the introduction of a comedy “Bad Ape” (voiced with requisite catchphrase glee by Steve Zahn) and the need to ram home some of the inspirations for the finale. It’s to be understood why however, given the almost dirge-like proceedings (not a bad thing by any step of the imagination) and how it ends up as some kind of allegory of a fight between workers and unions, Spartacus meets Shawshank Redemption and riddled with Holocaust imagery, such as ape crucifixions as well as the obligatory Ape Escape sequences.
Harrelson deserves commendation for adding an edge to his Colonel, and a tragedy to proceedings. Rather than head into OTT territory, there’s a subversion of expectations in War for the Planet of the Apes that he helps deliver. It’s not that there are not meaty concepts within this film, more a feeling that morally things are grey – and once again the digital apes deliver that in spades in their performance. Even Harrelson’s Colonel wryly remarks while staring down Caesar that his eyes “look almost human.”
Layering both tragedy and pathos in relatively equal measure, and despite some faltering turns in the story early on, (mainly involving a Nell-like child), War for the Planet of the Apes delivers a finale that crackles with delicious nuance as it debates whether Caesar (and by extension all of us) is right to succumb to his demons.
It is a sublime conclusion to the franchise, and a timely reminder that combined with intelligence and digital excellence, these apes manage to mirror our human lives and future pre-occupations in ways that may actually surprise cinemagoers.
War for the Planet of the Apes
Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller
Director: Matt Reeves
Running time: 140 minutes