Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Amiah Miller, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Max Lloyd-Jones, Alessandro Juliani, Chad Rook, Michael Adamthwaite, Timothy Webber
Runtime: 2 hrs 20 mins
Rating: PG (Some Violence)
Released By: 20th Century Fox
Opening Day: 13 July 2017
Synopsis: In War for the Planet of the Apes, the third chapter of the critically acclaimed blockbuster franchise, Caesar and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel. After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.
‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ picks up two years after the events of 2014’s ‘Dawn’, which saw ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis, via motion-capture performance) allow his mutinous second-in-command Koba to fall to his death but still come up powerless to stop the impending war that the latter had instigated. As the concluding chapter of the ‘Planet of the Apes’ prequel series opens, a squad of human soldiers stumble upon one of the outer walls guarding the apes’ forest habitat, resulting in a fierce exchange of bullets and arrows that claim the lives of sixty-three primates and all but four of the troops. Caesar appears to the captured men – ‘I didn’t start this war,’ he says – before placing them in pairs back-to-back on horseback and sending them back to their commander as a message of peace. Not surprisingly, that offer is categorically rejected, as the Special Forces colonel himself leads a night-time raid on the apes’ hideout behind a waterfall that ends up killing Caesar’s wife and son, thus pitting the two in a vendetta which threatens to fill the noble, empathetic simian with the same rage that Koba had been consumed by.
Unlike its predecessors, the end-game in ‘War’ is clear right from the very start, which also explains why the plotting here is a lot more straight-forward. Caesar will leave his fellow apes to exact vengeance on the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), joined only by his most fiercely loyal compatriots – fellow chimp Rocket (Terry Notary), orange-haired orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and sensitive gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). Along the way, they will adopt a mute orphan girl Nova (Amiah Miller) and meet an unlikely ally in former zoo monkey Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), before arriving at a former weapons depot where the Colonel has set up his own fortified headquarters. There, Caesar will discover to his horror that his cohorts whom he had left behind to journey to greener pastures have in fact been imprisoned concentration camp-style by the Colonel and made to work without food and water to build a wall (did we hear someone say Trump?). After finding out from the Colonel himself just what he and his men are trying to keep out, Caesar will coordinate a daring prison break that folds in elements of ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, ‘The Great Escape’ and other prisoners-of-war sagas before his kind are wiped out alongside the Colonel’s regimen.
Only in the last half-hour does returning director Matt Reeves grant his adrenaline-pumped audience the sort of big, explosive action that summer blockbusters are made of, so those looking for all-out spectacle should be warned that their patience will duly be tested. Instead, together with his co-writer Mark Bomback, Reeves shuns the grandiose in favour of rich, deep characterisation of each one of the apes – not just primate protagonist Caesar (who struggles to preserve his humanity), but also supporting players Maurice (who is not only Caesar’s conscience but a maternal stand-in for Nova), Bad Ape (who has to choose to be braver than his fears) and even former Koba follower Red (who has to decide just how much ‘ape’ there is left inside of him). While the Colonel is somewhat cast in a stereotypically villainous light, neither is he vilified, depicted rather as a victim of his own distorted beliefs and his self-inflated role in the survival of humankind. That unquestionable emphasis on character building also means that the movie unfurls at its own deliberate – though never dull – pace from the very beginning, with moments of heart and humour to lighten the otherwise sombre mood of the impending apes-versus-humans showdown.
Oh yes, this is ultimately a war movie, and Reeves proudly dangles the Vietnam-era iconography on the film’s sleeves. The ‘Apocalypse Now’ references are everywhere: from the tough-guy poetry written on the soldiers’ helmets, to the shot of the Colonel’s face in black paint, to the Colonel shaving his bald head and listening to 70s rock; and if these aren’t clear enough for you, there’s even ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’ scrawled as graffiti in an underground tunnel. Heavy-handed though they may seem, there is no denying the sum of these and iconic Western genre tropes makes for a gripping post-apocalyptic vision. The imagery painting the allegory of social upheaval is stunning – contrast the nasty, even appalling, conditions of the military base where the apes are held versus the stirring dignity of them sitting upright on horseback trotting along a beach or traversing across unspoiled landscapes covered in snow and bristling with California red fir and silver pine. With cinematographer Michael Seresin, Reeves has created an engrossing picture of what life could look like following the decline of human civilisation and the concomitant rise of a more intelligent but just as benevolent species.
After ‘Dawn’ and ‘Rise’, it is easy to take the achievement of mo-cap technology for granted, but it bears saying once again just how impressive it gets. Not only are the physical features of the apes beautifully detailed, every nuance in their facial expressions is so subtly rendered, bolstered of course by the excellent performances of the ensemble cast. Especially for those who have grown up with the 1960s and 1970s originals, it is simply amazing to see how successful this rebooted franchise has come – not only in terms of visual effects spectacle but also story, character and emotion, and the accomplishment is even more outstanding considering how much it relies on twitches, gestures and sign language, than exposition, between the simian characters to communicate thoughts and feelings. It is also no overstatement to say that Caesar is one of the most intriguing heroes in recent time - and just as how he has transformed from reluctant hero to the Moses of apes with a ‘Dawn’, then a 'Rise’, and finally all-out ‘War’, this franchise has gone from the theatrics of 'Dawn' to the grandeur of 'Rise' and ultimately to the seminality of 'War'.
(As seminal to the sci-fi/ post-apocalyptic genre as 'Apocalypse Now' is to the Vietnam war movie, 'War' is a character-driven finale that closes the 'Planet of the Apes' prequel series on an emotional high)
Review by Gabriel Chong