War for the Planet of the Apes Director: Matt Reeves
Screenwriter: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves
Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer, Terry Notary
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 | 142 Minutes
Release Date: July 14, 2017
“Apes. Together. Strong.”
In 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a scientific experiment gives rise to a species of intelligent apes, and a virus that brings humanity to the brink of extinction. The sentient apes flourish in the absence of humans until they’re discovered by a small band of survivors in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The species struggle to coexist, but their fragile peace is shattered by Koba, a former lab chimp so consumed with hatred for the humans that he betrays his leader, the noble chimpanzee Caesar, to incite war against them.
Enter War for the Planet of the Apes, the third and final chapter of 20th Century Fox’s critically acclaimed series. Directed by Matt Reeves (of Cloverfield, Let Me In, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), War delivers a powerful and poignant climax to one of the greatest film trilogies of all time, with complex characters, soulful performances, and the most impressive special effects I’ve ever seen. Not only is it one of the best movies of the summer, it’s one of the best films of 2017 — an unparalleled work of blockbuster filmmaking that is as thought-provoking as it is awe-inspiring.
Two years after the events of Dawn, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of genetically enhanced apes are ambushed by Alpha-Omega, a group of Special Forces soldiers led by a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who is determined to end “the primate problem.” The Colonel, like Marlon Brando’s unhinged Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, is something of a mythical figure — a renegade Green Beret who thinks being brutal is just being practical. In his own words, “We must abandon our humanity to save humanity.” Even worse, an increasing number of apes have defected to Alpha-Omega. One such turncoat is Red (Ty Olsson), a gorilla who was once a follower of Koba, now serving the Colonel as a “donkey” – a glorified pack mule.
Red and the rest of the defectors are slaves fighting on behalf of their masters, promised freedom after the war is won. Caesar, however, knows that there will never be freedom for apes, as long as humans like the Colonel exist. There was once hope that the wise leader might be able to bridge the two societies, but now it’s clear that this will not come to pass. Caesar rallies his brothers: Rocket (Terry Notary), the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and the remaining apes to finish the war the humans started. Along the way, they encounter a pair of unlikely allies in Nova (Amiah Miller), a mute human child, and Bad Ape, a lonely, soft-spoken zoo escapee played by Steve Zahn, who brings humor and heart to the proceedings. Decked out in a winter vest, Bad Ape leads Caesar and company to the Colonel’s snow-clad base – a prison camp where emaciated apes are used as slave labor – for an epic final confrontation.
Co-written by Reeves and Mark Bomback, War for the Planet of the Apes deftly blends Kurosawa samurai epics, Clint Eastwood Westerns, and classic war films like Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape to create a soul-stirring cinematic experience that speaks to the very core of human nature. The apes demonstrate the compassion and empathy we show at our best, while the Colonel displays the cruelty and rage that consumes us when we’re at our worst. It’s a moving story driven by Andy Serkis’ phenomenal performance, one that deserves a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Serkis has played the sentient ape from infancy through adulthood, imbuing the digital creation with nuance and emotional depth. Here, the actor explores Caesar at his most conflicted, overwhelmed by pain and suffering, while trying to remain a “humane” leader without succumbing to his more animalistic urges.
Whether it’s Konoval’s Maurice or Zahn’s squirrelly but fashionable Bad Ape, the supporting characters feel just as complex and complete as Caesar. These apes are living, breathing organisms with souls. They are us. And like all great science-fiction, War for the Planet of the Apes allows us to step outside ourselves, examine what makes us human, and undergo a catharsis by experiencing the human condition through the eyes of a character we can’t imagine existing. E.T., the Iron Giant, Frankenstein, King Kong – they’re memorable because inside of them is something we relate to – something that, despite being an alien, robot, or monster, feels human. Caesar and his tribe rank among these iconic personas and will be remembered as some of the most lifelike characters ever created, thanks to Weta Digital’s incredible performance capture technology.
Performance capture – recording an actor’s movements, gestures, and facial expressions to animate a digital character – has been around a while, but Weta keeps raising the bar for what is possible with this technology. When I saw it in 2014, I thought Dawn had the most impressive special effects ever, until I saw War. Now, real-time facial animation tools allow artists to match complex and precise facial animations to honor an actor’s performance completely. Additionally, the groundbreaking technology can be used anywhere – in extreme weather conditions, on mountaintops, in broad daylight – and capture every nuance of an actor’s performance. Before Rise, mo-cap had never before been attempted outside a soundstage. With all of these advances, there’s no difference between playing a role in a performance capture suit and a role in traditional costume and makeup; it’s that persuasive.
Breathtakingly captured in 65mm by cinematographer Michael Seresin (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and set to a full-bodied score by Michael Giacchino, War for the Planet of the Apes is a modern masterpiece. Not only is it one of the best conclusions to a trilogy ever, it’s the most moving film I’ve seen this year. Reeves deftly balances substance and spectacle to deliver a film that is heartbreaking in its bleakness, but not without hope. There is a glimmer of the greatness we can achieve if we don’t abandon our humanity, but fully embrace it.