From its opening instalment – 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes – through its sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the new incarnation of the Apes series has managed to blend stunning visual effects with rich characters and emotionally resonant stories. The latest entry, Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, takes things to another level, following the series’ simian protagonist Caesar on a sombre, morally murky journey into the heart of darkness.
It’s now fifteen years since the outbreak of the Simian Flu, and large swaths of humanity have been wiped out. The film opens on a tense, slow-burn sequence following a group of human soldiers on a mission to infiltrate the ape settlement in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Chief ape Caesar and his army fight off the humans but that isn’t the end of it; before the apes can move on, Caesar suffers a grave loss at the hands of the human’s leader, Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson) which sets him on a path of vengeance
Just as the series’ intelligent apes have continued to evolve, so too has the technology behind them and here, Caesar is undoubtedly the new benchmark for digital effects. Portrayed once again by the incomparable Andy Serkis, the aging, weary Caesar is shockingly lifelike. When McCullough comes face to face with his ape adversary and remarks that his eyes are “almost human”, you see where he’s coming from. Serkis’s features are almost fully visible beneath his digital mask and he imbues Caesar with soul and gravitas, wearing the toll of a life of war and pain and loss all over his face.
As McCullough – a character so overtly Kurtzian that ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’ is scrolled on a nearby wall – Harrelson channels his inner Brando to good effect, theatrically shaving his head and lurking in the shadows. With a harrowing past of his own, McCullough has come to believe he must abandon his humanity in order to save it, something that clashes with Caesar’s more peaceful philosophy. Though it is his animalistic urge for revenge that leads Caesar to seek out McCullough, it is his humanity that allows him to maintain his dignity, restraint and ultimately mercy in the face of the horrors McCullough puts him through.
This internal struggle hits at the film’s central question of what it really means to be human, which Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback explore in a way that’s surprisingly thoughtful and challenging for a summer blockbuster. War takes its themes extremely seriously and expects you to as well, but that self-seriousness doesn’t make the film any less entertaining. In fact, perhaps its biggest misstep is the decision to include a comic relief character in the shape of Bad Ape, a domesticated zoo ape who can speak English. Again, the character is stunningly realised and brilliantly played by Steve Zahn, but his pratfalls and verbal gags don’t mesh with the gravely serious events occurring elsewhere. He was no doubt inserted to provide tension-breaking laughs but instead he just feels out of place and leads to jarring tonal shifts.
While Bad Ape and an overly explosive finale smack of studio notes, War for the Planet of the Apes ultimately has the feel of director and a franchise firing on all cylinders. It is bold in its visuals and its storytelling – much of the dialogue is subtitled ape-speak – and has the confidence to explore weighty themes inside the trappings of a studio tentpole. It is thrilling blockbuster filmmaking on an epic scale that never loses sight of the characters that have made the series so compelling.