Hail Caesar, indeed.
One of the most gripping movie character arcs in recent memory comes to a conclusion with War for the Planet of the Apes: that of Caesar (Andy Serkis), a lab-born chimpanzee who gained unusual intelligence as a result of human experimentation; escaped his abusive captors; and led a revolt of similarly advanced apes, even as the human population began to dwindle due to the outbreak of a deadly virus.
This all took place in the thrilling reboot/prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and the Shakespearean political drama (I kid you not), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. War finds Caesar, some two years after the events of Dawn, facing a choice: continue living in increasingly antagonistic relationship with the remaining humans or actively work toward their ultimate subjugation.
That we are right there with Caesar in his agonizing predicament is a testament to Serkis’ groundbreaking work in motion-capture performance (his turn in Rise was Oscar-worthy), as well as the impeccable CGI effects, which give every simian detail a startling verisimilitude. “My God. Look at your eyes. Almost human,” a character observes of Caesar, who is staring him down with a mixture of anger, suspicion, and pity. Exactly.
Directed, as was Dawn, by Matt Reeves, War for the Planet of the Apes opens with a stunning battle sequence, in which a team of human soldiers assaults an ape compound hidden in the forest. Although the fighting itself is panicked and chaotic, the camera movements and editing scheme are restrained, even calm. A slowly gliding overhead shot of the fray allows us to take in the full scope of the violence and suffering. Later, when Caesar plunges into a rushing river, we see his leap from far away, in long shot; the camera patiently holds on the water, without a cut, until Caesar emerges gasping for air right in front of us. All along, Michael Giacchino’s score offers ominous rumbles and insinuating slices of strings. There is a soberness to the shape and sound of War for the Planet of the Apes that rightly matches the movie’s serious consideration of conflict.
There is a soberness to the shape and sound of the movie that rightly matches its serious consideration of conflict.
There is a curious turn, however, after this first act. Just as the movie seems preparing to spread wide an epic canvas, it curiously retreats to become a prison movie. The bulk of the film takes place in a snowy concentration camp for apes, overseen by a Kurtz-like madman known as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). There are some standout scenes here, and certainly defining moments for the central conflict within Caesar’s character, yet I couldn’t help feeling that the narrative shift put the three-film sweep on pause, exactly when it seemed to be building toward a monumental climax.
It would be easier to forgive this detour if I was more taken with The Colonel, who arguably gets more attention than any human has yet in the trilogy. Despite Harrelson’s best efforts—he can do scary-crazy as well as anybody—War asks too much of the character. Much of the film’s plotting, motivation, and even theme are wrapped up in The Colonel; indeed, all three get explicated in a lengthy, laborious dialogue scene between The Colonel and Caesar. Simply put, there is too much humanity in this ape movie.
Far better are the scenes involving Maurice (Karin Konoval), the mournful orangutan who serves as Caesar’s counselor and conscience, and Rocket (Terry Notary), his brave, right-hand chimp. Especially haunting are the visions Caesar has of Koba (Toby Kebbell), his now-deceased adversary from Dawn, who reappears to taunt Caesar that he was right all along about the worthlessness of humans. These are all more compelling characters than The Colonel or Nova (Amiah Miller), a mute human girl whom the apes encounter on their way to the prison. (As for Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape, another new character, I found his presence to be distractingly Dobbyesque.)
Despite such hiccups, War for the Planet of the Apes regains its footing for a finale that is appropriately momentous, then elegiac. An especially astute touch is the way the climactic battle is decided not by men or apes, but by the brute force of nature itself. These films have been rooted in an understanding that humanity, for all its accomplishment, is still subservient to a created order. War for the Planet of the Apes honors the remarkable creature who—partly out of desire, but mostly out of tragic necessity—re-ordered things in irrevocable ways.