Third movies in big franchises or trilogies have a tendency to be regarded as frequently lackluster compared to their predecessors. I don’t think that’s entirely fair since we’ve had a number of great third entries in big series of movies in recent years (Lord of The Rings, Captain America, Iron Man and Toy Story all delivered strong third entries in their respective franchises), yet such a thought process in pop culture. Want some further concrete evidence that third movies can be something special? Check out War For The Planet Of The Apes, the newest entry in the film series that, when first announced, sound like the ultimate cash-grab and now has morphed into something that feels groundbreaking for the very medium of summer blockbuster fare.
This one’s a sequel to Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, and looking over this trilogy, it’s remarkable how different each movie is from each other, though this newest movie retains its predecessor’s director, Matt Reeves. Just as Dawn went for a post-apocalyptic survival thriller vibe that differentiated it from its predecessor. War For The Planet Of The Apes angles for both a bleaker tone and even a slightly smaller scope than either of its predecessors. Going for these specific elements give War For The Planet Of The Apes its own distinct identity in this trilogy of movies, but it’s really that former element that truly helps the feature soar since it is thoroughly committed to executing a more melancholy primate-centered narrative that has more in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Martin Scorsese’s Silence than typical summer blockbuster fare.
A few years after the events of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) is the leader of his ever expanding population of apes as they try to survive in the woods away from humanity, which is determined to destroy Caesar and every ape they encounter (sans for a few ape defectors that now work for the humans). When The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) invades Caesar’s home and brings death and chaos with him, Caesar realizes that they are not safe in their current location and that he and all of his ape brethren will have to move to a new home. While the rest of the apes travel to their new home, Caesar and a select few friends of his (including franchise mainstays Rocket and Maurice) travel with him to take down The Colonel, as Caesar hopes that will make the enraged human soldiers that follow The Colonel to go after Caesar instead of the other apes.
Along their journey, they encounter a young mute girl they dub Nova (Amiah Miller) and a talkative primate named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), the latter of whom provides both welcome levity (the sight of him in a little blue lifejacket is more than enough to justify his presence in the movie) and also provides the location of the the base where The Colonel and the assortment of human soldiers under his command reside. If you’re thinking this is the set-up to a standard revenge thriller or something akin to that, it’s very much not that. Caesar’s road to The Colonel is full of hardship and once he actually gets to him the agony he endures only increases. This is a film that captures all that Caesar and the other apes endure under the cruelty exhibited by the remnants of humanity in an unflinching way, we are not given a chance to look away and that’s very much on an intentional choice on the part of the movie.
It’s easy to see how such emphasis on pain and suffering could come off as gratuitous but War For The Planet Of The Apes uses all of it for a very clear purpose; to demonstrate how far humanity, in its waning days, has fallen. In the face of hardship, the likes of The Colonel have lost their minds and embraced savagery. They’re far more animalistic than the hyper-intelligent animals they see as their downfall. Unlike in the past two movies, there is no kind human to serve as Caesar’s pal and offer some hope for human/ape co-existence. Right from the title, we can see that this is a movie all about the conflict between man and apes and such a conflict produces great amounts of agony that the poor apes endure.
What helps all the darker material feel appropriate for the story is not only in how it serves a definitive thematic purpose but that it’s also complimented by spots of kindness and selflessness emerging from the carnage like a budding flower sprouting amidst the snow. Such moments come in the form of small-scale intimate moments such as Rocket and Maurice volunteering on their own accord to accompany Caesar on his mission to track down The Colonel. No tears are shed, no big speeches are given, it’s just three apes we’ve come to know and love over these three movies being there for another. Even in a world that seems to have tilted so much towards utter madness, you can still find some humanity in here.
Such moments of kindliness are rendered in mostly dialogue-free sequences since all but two of the apes (Caesar and Bad Ape being the lone exceptions) being able to communicate only by sign language. This means a surprisingly large chunk of War For The Planet Of The Apes is dedicated to slower-paced sequences mostly free of verbal communication. It’s a smart decision that allows the intimate moments between the characters to have their maximum emotional impact while the editing by William Hoy and Stan Salfas does a great job of making sure the cuts between shots don’t interrupt the slow-paced vibe of these mostly dialogue-free sequences. You know who else gets to shine in these scenes of extended silence? Composer Michael Giacchino whose score is tasked with doing a lot of heavy lifting in these dialogue-free segments of the motion picture, a task the excellent score is more than up to.
But these scenes mostly devoid of dialogue wouldn’t work in any way shape or form without the motion-capture apes working and good Lord, do these CGI creations really reach a new level of success here. Their movements, their fur, the way they interact with the real sets and environments (resorting to practical locations for the majority of the movie is also an incredibly smart visual choices, there’s a real tactility in the locations these apes inhabit), it’s all impeccable looking, you easily forget you’re watching something that’s created on a computer thanks to both those high-quality visual effects and the strong writing from screenwriters Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves that makes these apes into highly engaging characters. Also excelling in the realm of motion-capture is Andy Serkis, whose performance as Caesar is his best yet in the franchise.
Serkis excels in conveying various parts of Caesar’s personalities; a vengeful warrior, a leader, a worried father, a creature plagued by uncertainty, he’s able to show so much range with his performance as Caesar here. The animators in charge of Caesar as a CGI character deserve massive kudos for their work here too but man oh man, it’s hard to imagine this character working so well without Serkis, who makes Caesar both a believable normal person and someone with the type of personality it’d be easy to see people rallying behind. Woody Harrelson turns in similarly incredible work as The Colonel, one of the most sadistic and cruel blockbuster baddies we’ve seen in years and it’s a character whose malicious nature Harrelson works wonders with. If you can see humanity in Caesar’s eyes, Harrelson’s terrific performance makes sure you can only see pain and cruelty in his characters pupils.
Two lead performances bringing to life two richly realized characters anchor War For The Planet Of The Apes but it should be clear from this lengthy review that they’re far from the only elements firing on all cylinders in this movie. Director Matt Reeves has helmed an incredibly powerful motion picture that took me, a guy who loved the last two movies, completely by surprise in its substantive nature. Above all else, this is a feature about examining Caesar, a figure propped up to legendary status by both apes and humans alike, and examining all the normal human emotions such a supposedly mythic figure undergoes in the middle of enduring unspeakable horrors. The results of telling such a story left me breathless and riveted. To paraphrase Troy McClure, “I love you War For The Planet Of The Apes!”