REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Director: Matt Reeves

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Amiah Miller

Running time: 140 minutes

4-stars

Two years after vengeful ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) led a violent siege upon mankind as part of a coup against Caesar (Serkis) in Dawn, the war for the planet continues. Any hopes of peaceful coexistence are shattered when a failed assassination attempt on the ape leader by a group of human soldiers, led by a ruthless Colonel (Harrelson), leaves numerous apes dead. Overcome with anger, guilt, and grief, Caesar embarks on a vengeful mission of his own.

Little did Matt Reeves know, when inheriting the keys to planet apedom from Rupert Wyatt after 2011’s Rise, that come War, it would arguably be the most eagerly anticipated third instalment since a certain Dark Knight rose. Raising the bar high with Dawn, the question on everyone’s lips (by everyone, I of course mean myself) was whether Reeves could build on the dense jungle of character depth, gritty moral complexity, and rich philosophical musings he gave us so impressively, and somewhat unexpectedly, the first-time round.

In film series mythology, the phrase “the sequel was better than the original” doesn’t crop up very often. The fact that Dawn bettered Rise meant that those damn dirty apes were already in an elite cinema club containing very few members by the time the trailer dropped for War. The holy grail of such mythology, however, is hearing the fabled utterance “the third instalment trumps them all”. And with War for the Planet of the Apes, not a truer word was spoken. Bold, engrossing, and poignant, Reeves’ film is nothing short of a threequel masterstroke.

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Given how the second film ended, the temptation for many a filmmaker would be to simply pick up from where Dawn left off and give us an ear piercing, mind numbing, two-hour Pelennor Fields style mega battle. And the opening scenes – an explosive woodland siege upon an ape outpost – would indicate such a formula. Thankfully, Reeves doesn’t fall into the bracket of ‘many a filmmaker’, however. From there, the narrative tempo takes a noticeable U-turn, as Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback begin to intricately weave their patient and richly thematic morality tale. Encompassing the narrative chords of a classic Western, War stirs up memories of Eastwood’s Unforgiven as Caesar and co. journey across a vast wilderness with revenge on their mind, picking up series newbies “Bad Ape” (Zahn) and a mute human pre-teen (Miller) along the way. It’s surprising, but refreshingly so, that given its title, this is a film that assuredly replaces the conventional bangs and bullets with quieter moments of real substance and heart.

In fact, much of the war in War is fought not in the damp forests or deserted snowy military bases of California that the film takes us through, but from within the characters that tread such terrains. A visibly aged Caesar struggles with the increasingly weighty internal conflict that rages inside between personal vendetta and the responsibility of preserving an entire species. Despite the aid of day-one loyalists Maurice (Konoval) and Rocket (Notary) by his side, the famed ape leader, like a certain similar sized, and almost as hairy chap named Frodo, carries the burden of entire existence exclusively upon his shoulders – and boy, do we feel every kilogram of it with him.

Even War’s very own Colonel Kurtz, the sociopathic Colonel McCullough (one of a number of Apocalypse Now parallels), played with frosty mercilessness by Harrelson, who begins as one-dimensionally brutal as they come, is given his moment of narrative confliction and complexity. Like the series’ villains that have come before, there is tragedy amidst the antagonism, and another example of Planet of the Apes serving us meaty side dishes with our banana banquet.

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For Caesar, perhaps inevitably, echoes of William Wallace and Spartacus ring a tad too loudly at times; and during the film’s later scenes of him strung up on what is effectively a makeshift cross, so too do the biblical chimes. But Caesar, in his own right, cements his place in the annals of memorable cinematic leaders, thanks in no small part to the fabulous talents of Andy Serkis. Even after two films, opposite numerous acting powerhouses such as Brian Cox (in Rise) and Gary Oldman (in Dawn), as well as a potential scene-stealing turn from Steve Zahn here, Serkis and Caesar remain the star players, dominating each and every frame with an almost flawless harmonisation of physical and verbal acting prowess.

But for all its borrowings from both classic cinema and history – to go with Coppola’s masterpiece, there are threads of The Great Escape in there, but sadly no motorbike; and some much darker Holocaust ties – this is also an entertainingly contemporary number. When I said earlier that “the third film trumps them all”, I selected my verb very deliberately. I’ll leave you to make your own conclusions with that one, but a certain structure that appears in the film, built by forced ape labour, will probably speak for itself…

War for the Planet of the Apes is a film with both heart and brains – and not just the kind that gets splattered around for two hours. Reeves takes the time to invest in his primates, but in doing so has to settle for a final third that feels rushed and a tad lazy when compared to the build-up. But as third instalments go, this is one of the strongest, and most satisfying we’ve seen in many a year.

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