War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

For freedom. For family. For the planet.

I wouldn’t be lying if I said that there’s more humanity in the first 20 minutes of this ‘ape adventure’ than the entirety of Christopher Nolan’s dry and droopy Dunkirk (2017). The third installment in the Planet of the Apes reboot series — following 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 2014’s Dawn — this concluding chapter doesn’t waste any time monkeying around, returning writer-director Matt Reeves finally pitting the super-intelligent apes against the diminishing human race, who refuse to co-exist with the simian monkeys. That being said, there’s probably less action in War than Dawn, with filmmaker Reeves more focused on sombre moments and internal conflicts rather than bloodshed and carnage, War for the Planet of the Apes going from a dark revenge flick, to savior story, before finishing off as a Great Escape (1963) type escapade, these different strands woven together by an expert who’s clearly at the top of his game.

Ape-ocalypse Now

War for the Planet of the Apes picks up two years after the events of Dawn and opens with a bunch of human soldiers, who are trailing through a lush green forest, their nicknames — such as ‘Monkey Killer’ — graffitied on the back of their helmets à la Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). We soon learn that this rogue paramilitary faction, known as Alpha-Omega, are in search of the legendary Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his army of apes, who are still feeling the repercussions of the human-hating Koba (Toby Kebbell) and his malicious scheme to force mankind into a long, drawn-out war against the monkeys. After a violent clash with the armed forces, Caesar decides to spare the lives of a handful of soldiers so that their ruthless leader, a Kurtz-like figure known as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), would stop the senseless fighting. But, instead of accepting the peace offering, the bald-headed Colonel retaliates by attacking the apes’ visually striking waterfall hideout and killing several members of Caesar’s immediate family.

With their whereabouts now exposed, the vengeful Caesar sends his tribe to look for the Promised Land while he goes after the Colonel with his closest friends. Accompanied by his brother figure Rocket (Terry Notary), orangutan adviser Maurice (Karin Konoval) and the gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), the troupe eventually stumble onto an orphan girl (Amiah Miller) who’s lost the ability to speak, a mutation in the Simian Flu regressing humanity back to a primitive state — her identity a clever nod to the original 1968 Planet of the Apes. They also run into a lone chimpanzee, who calls himself Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), this zoo escapee hiding out in an abandoned ski resort in Northern California. When Bad Ape informs the group of the Colonel’s possible location, our protagonists make their way to a former weapons depot that’s been turned into a quarantine facility, Caesar learning that the Colonel has captured his entire clan, imprisoning them in a harsh labor camp. Now, as Caesar attempts to free his people, he comes face-to-face with the Colonel, the two squaring off in a final showdown that’ll determine the future of the planet and the fate of their respective species.

Ape-nny for your thoughts …

Much like the previous Ape entries, Caesar remains at the forefront of this story, returning scribes Mark Bomback and co-writer Reeves choosing to frame the majority of the journey from his perspective, thus making it easier for viewers to empathize with his plight. Caesar is haunted by Koba’s memory, afraid that his hatred might lead him down a similar path of self-destruction, which he must overcome if he wishes to protect his people from future struggles. Although billed as a tentpole popcorn flick, the narrative works best when it’s exploring themes of revenge and infighting, particularly the ways in which people respond to loss and disorder — War shining a light on the wrongs that we inflict on one another in turbulent times, even those we care about. The Colonel, who sees the apes as a threat to all of humanity, has his own demons to deal with, too. Rather than working towards peace, Harrelson’s Colonel McCullough believes that one race must come out on top, and if the apes have to live among us, they must do so as second-rate citizens, who are degraded, referred to as ‘donkeys.’ One of these donkeys is the conflicted gorilla Red (Ty Olsson), an ex-follower of Koba’s who joined the Colonel’s army after losing his mob. Either way, there’s a lot of rich subtext to dissect and debate.

Running for 140 minutes, a smidgen too long, War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t without its flaws; for one, Alpha-Omega’s base is easier to destroy than the Death Star. The Biblical references feel way too forced as well, with Caesar literally elevated to quasi-Messianic status, our hero leading his followers through the desert and into salvation. It’s also worth noting that War for the Planet of the Apes requires its audience to have to read quite a bit of subtitles, which can be a repellent for certain moviegoers, the apes mainly communicating through sign language.

A Gorilla in their Midst

Taking motion-capture to soaring new heights, War sees WETA deliver some of their most impressive VFX work to date, their digital creations blending seamlessly into their surroundings — whether the apes are riding on horseback or simply just speaking, we believe what we are seeing, wholeheartedly. Andy Serkis, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), continues to wonderful things as the mo-cap master, the 53-year-old actor driving the bulk of Caesar’s performance, Serkis, over the course of the trilogy, crafting the most fully realized CGI character ever committed to screen. Steve Zahn, Sahara (2005), is also terrific as newcomer Bad Ape, whose questionable winter fashion and ‘Oh no!’ expression generates a bulk of the flick’s very few laughs. With John Ford’s work cited as being a major reference point, War for the Planet of the Apes is technically striking, cinematographer Michael Seresin, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), stunningly capturing the wintery terrain with its misty thickets, snow-covered mountains and cloudy waterfalls, while the haunting score by Michael Giacchino, Jurassic World (2015), which mixes percussion with orchestral, is by far one of his ape-solute best.

Although never quite reaching the excellence of 2014’s Dawn, War for the Planet of the Apes still makes for a rewarding, entertaining and emotionally satisfying blockbuster, Reeves and his team convincing me to root against my own species. But hey, I’ve never been much of an advocate for humanity anyway.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

War for the Planet of the Apes is released through 20th Century Fox Australia