Even two films in, the fact that the return of the Planet of the Apes franchise has worked as well as it has is still a surprise. Apart from the masterpiece that started it back in 1968, the films that followed were never that strong, the novelty always overpowering its integrity. ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ (2011) though was a far more considered "reboot" than anyone was expecting, and ‘Dawn...’ (2014) brought an even greater sense of gravitas and craftsmanship to the series, making it one of the more acclaimed franchises of the last few years. With ‘War For The Planet Of The Apes’, director Matt Reeves takes the story of the apes even further into the darkness, and even closer to the original film.
With war now a reality between humans and apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) has to find a way to lead his tribe to safety and a home where they won’t be under threat. When the battle is brought to his own home with tragic consequences though at the hand of the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), Caesar finds himself on a path of revenge that could put all those he cares and leads under serious threat.
The shift in tone towards darker themes that occurred between ‘Rise...' and ‘Dawn...' continues tenfold here, with Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback digging deeper into the humanity of the apes and the inhumanity of human beings in their desperation to survive. ‘War...’ is an unrelenting and uncompromising film, easily the bleakest blockbuster in many years, with the apes pushed to their emotional and physical limits. Their determination to live their own lives is continually shattered by the humans that pursue them, no longer driven by any logical or moral reasoning but the foul determination to remain the dominant species. The Apes films are always at their best as social commentary, and this film feels very much of its time with our world caught in the grip of xenophobia and intense patriotic radicalism. It isn’t subtle about it either - Reeves loads the films with images and iconography so potent and dangerous that you gasp - not just because of their emotional impact, but from their audacity. It also pushes itself further in terms of physical and emotional violence, but this is a war film, and the best of them do not compromise on their depiction of the terrible things we do in the name of war, regardless of the fact the main characters happen to be apes. In fact, it allows Reeves to get away with his more obvious biting commentary, using science fiction in the way all great science fiction does - as a mirror with which to look at ourselves and our own misdeeds.
While the film doesn’t compromise on its bleak tone, it still understands its function as a piece of entertainment, even though it leads its audience further away from that conceit than ever before. Careful moments of humour prevent it from becoming too overwhelming, and Reeves allows the emotional beats ample room to breathe, making for many genuinely moving moments. The filmmaking is once again exceptional, especially Michael Seresin’s gorgeous cinematography, which continues to open up the visual scale of the series. There are a few important cinematic touchstones that inform it, especially ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957) and ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979), but these feel justified rather than lazy, the former in particular giving a spine on which to hang the latter half of the film. Perhaps its greatest technical achievement though is its visual effects; the realisation of the apes a jaw-dropping achievement in photorealism. If this isn't nominated for an Oscar this year, there’s no justice in the world. The only real problem with the film is its length - at two hours and twenty minutes, it overstays its welcome by probably those extra twenty. It’s never indulgent, but when a film is as unrelenting as this, it becomes a tad exhausting in its volume.
Once again, Andy Serkis continues to prove his mastery over the motion capture form with his remarkable performance as Caesar, bringing it full-circle with an older, more unforgiving figure. This is a tough, emotionally-demanding performance, but Serkis brings enormous humanity and gravitas to it. All the ape performances are terrific, with Steve Zahn joining the cast as a new character that opens the scale of the series even further. The stand-out though is Karin Konoval as Maurice, the orangutan. Her performance is beautiful, bringing a much-needed gentleness to the film, especially in the relationship between Maurice and a young girl played by Amiah Miller, who is rescued by the apes. Their first scene together is breathtaking, and probably the highlight in a film with no shortage of them.
This is an unrelenting and uncompromising film, easily the bleakest blockbuster in many years, with the apes pushed to their emotional and physical limits.
What has impressed me the most though about these films - and had me gasping at many points in this film - are their relationship with their mythology. There are many allusions to the 1968 original, but all occur naturally within the context of the story, never as banal fan service. The care that has been taken to ensure the legacy of the original is honoured is a blessing for a fan like me, but the reverence never gets in the way of the storytelling. In this age of lazy nostalgia-baiting and endless reboots of old properties, this series is the only one that demonstrates genuine integrity its source and works hard to earn its place next to it.
‘War For The Planet Of The Apes’ is not an easy film to digest. It offers its entertainment wrapped in thick, biting social commentary, and makes us face the inhumanity we try to avoid in ourselves. It does this though with heart, integrity and a belief in compassion and understanding. I left the cinema exhausted and worn out, but thankful that blockbuster filmmaking is still capable of confronting and questioning its audience. The fact that it comes in the form of an exceptionally crafted, visually breathtaking and emotionally satisfying package makes it all the more enjoyable. May this series still continue to do so.