In 2014, my friend and I walked into this film’s predecessor, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with reasonable expectations. We had both been pleasantly surprised by how competent Rise of the Planet of the Apes had been, and we both loved Matt Reeves and were excited to see what he would do with the material. He brought it to a whole other level. We were wowed by the leaps Dawn had made. We were expecting it to be good, Reeves gave us one of the better blockbusters of this century. He’s returned behind the helm of War of the Planet of the Apes, and it’s just as deeply emotional, wondrously humble and majestically epic as Dawn. Reeves has made the two best films in a franchise that started back in 1968, bringing the films to new heights both filmically and technically.
War finds us 2 years after the end of Dawn, where a war has been raging between the apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) and a human battalion led by a ruthless, unhinged Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After suffering a terrible loss at the hands of the colonel, Caesar embarks on a quest for revenge to free his kind.
The folks at WETA continue to outdo themselves with their work in the field of CGI and motion capture. The apes straight up just look real. There’s not a frame where you question it. They look just as real as the humans they share the screen with. There are several scenes where WETA flexes their muscles, showing they still look stunningly real in multiple environments. I’m just speechless at what they’ve achieved. The apes looked and felt stunningly real in Dawn, and they’ve somehow improved even more here. No hyperbole, this may be the best CG work ever put on screen. An Oscar isn’t good enough to praise what they’ve done.
Caesar has risen to the ranks of iconic in these past two films, and Andy Serkis deserves all the credit we can give him. All the technical brilliance from WETA doesn’t work for a second without him. There’s a reason why he’s the go-to guy for motion-captured performances, he’s somewhat of a godfather in the form. Not everyone can rise to the sheer physicality of a role like this, and imbue it with so much soul and life. Caesar has a sort of Spartacus/Moses journey in this film, and he gives it such authentic emotion and keeps it impressively grounded. It’s difficult to explain why Serkis is so wonderful as Caesar, because what he is doing is so revolutionary for film that we don’t have much to compare it to, aside from his previous work as Gollum. He’s carved out a corner for himself in film history, and I don’t think anybody else could have done it. Again, I don’t think an Oscar is good enough praise for what Serkis has done here. Lifetime Achievement award, maybe.
Steve Zahn gives a terrific standout performance as Bad Ape, a frightened and nervous ape that helps Caesar in his quest. He’s there as a sort of comedic relief, but you never feel like he’s trying too hard to make you laugh. The comedy feels rooted in his character, and he gives you a real sense of Bad Ape’s tragic backstory and warm heart in his interactions. He’s almost the heart and soul of the film. Terry Notary and Karin Konoval deserve high praise for the memorable characters of Rocket and Maurice that they’ve crafted over these three films. Woody Harrelson is a terrific villain for Caesar to fight against, he never lets it veer too far into camp. You empathize for what drove him to his crazed, unmerciful state. There’s a wonderful moment near the end where Caesar and him just stare at each other, and there’s a feeling of empathy from Caesar that is just extraordinary.
What Matt Reeves has done with this franchise is a great example of what happens when you give an independent creative the money to match his ambition and creativity and the space to let him work his magic. His Cloverfield was my favorite film of 2008, and I’m in the small camp that thinks his Let Me In is a rare American remake that is vastly superior to the foreign-language original. He’s elevated these films – which should feel inherently silly seeing as they revolve around monkeys with machine guns – into immediate, relevant works of art. It’s a long film at 2 hours and 20 minutes, and not a minute feels unnecessary. Reeves isn’t afraid to indulge in quiet, introspective moments, he’s not rushing to the next big setpiece. He also really handles the whole mood and tension of the film expertly. This film’s got concentration camps and whippings, some pretty heavy stuff. It feels as serious as something like that should. “Measured” is the sort of word that comes to mind in how he balances it all. The violence never feels titillating, but tragic. Even when characters deserve it, you still feel the loss of life. You see how it eats away at Caesar when he has to take a life. I don’t know if there is another film planned (the film leaves it open, but not necessary) but Reeves has brought tremendous gravitas to this franchise, and can leave proudly knowing he left it in a better place than he found it should he choose.
Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin create wondrous imagery, lighting their mocap actors perfectly to enhance the immediacy and authenticity of their presence. The battle sequences are gorgeously shot, really enhancing how authentic and physical this whole film feels. Michael Giacchino has become one of the most reliable composers in Hollywood, constantly crafting memorable scores for multiple blockbusters. He constructs a fine work that is equally epic and emotional.
It’s just a rare thing of beauty to see a film like this. It’s a summer franchise blockbuster that’s got incredible depths of emotion, is masterfully filmed and performed, and is a technical marvel of a breakthrough at the same time. There’s a relevancy to moments of this film that I’m not sure the filmmakers had intended. The colonel is building a wall to prepare for a battle, and is using enslaved apes to build it. He’s maniacally convinced this wall will solve all their problems. Caesar tells him “This wall will not save you.” Walls never save us, they only divide. There’s a powerful message that arises – it’s not the apes – the “other” – that will wipe humans out, it’s the humans that will wipe the humans out. Let’s hope we catch onto that lesson sooner rather than later. Apes, and humans, together – strong.