Over the last decade, the culture of cinematic reboots has become a much-maligned side of Hollywood culture. From Western remakes of Japanese properties like The Ring and Oldboy to big budget remakes of classics like Clash Of The Titans; the cinematic landscape seems to contain an attempt to rebuild a classic franchise at least once a year and, sadly, they often end up being critically-panned and badly received by the public.
The exception to this trend started back in 2011 with Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes; rebooting the classic Planet Of The Apes series for the second time. Rise stars James Franco (27 Hours) as scientist Will Rodman, who tests his new anti-Alzheimer’s drug on an ophaned chimpanzee called Caesar (Andy Serkis, The Lord Of The Rings). Caesar would go on to develop greatly advanced levels of intelligence off the back of a drug that would create the Simian Flu; an epidemic which would wipe out half the human race, and lead to other apes also gaining increased intelligence… and lead to a trilogy of modernised incarnations of the classic series. Rise and Dawn were both met with critical acclaim and had huge box office success, a trend which War For The Planet Of The Apes looks to maintain.
Set 15 years after Rise and 2 years after Dawn; War brings us back to the forests of California, where Caesar’s tribe of apes reside. They are still being pursued by humans, this time explicitly by a branch of the military called Alpha Omega, led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson, Seven Psychopaths), who are looking to destroy the apes once and for all in the hope of containing the final strands of the Simian Flu virus. After a successful incursion into Caesar’s stronghold results in significant fatalities, the ape has 2 priorities – getting his tribe to safety, and ending the war with the humans once and for all.
War For The Planet Of The Apes can effectively be divided into two distinct stories. The first part is essentially an ape-lead reinvention of The Revenant; the second manifests as a re-working of The Great Escape (or Great Esc-Ape*, if you will). Both blend nicely together to bring together a complete package, with the first act nicely establishing the motives, decisions and actions that lead the story into the second and third acts. While we primarily follow Caesar for the third time, favourites from the orevious outings feature front and centre as well – Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval, Beyond), Rocket the bonobo (Terry Notary, Kong: Skull Island) and Luca the gorilla (Michael Adamthwaite, Dirk Gently’s Hollistic Detective Agency) provide company for Caesar during the Reven-ape* section of War, and are on hand to help provide context and guidance during some of Caesar’s moments of tribulation, often playing Devil’s ape-vocat* on issues of morality for their leader.
As with Rise and Dawn, War continues the existential discussion around the nature of the human condition, this time focusing heavily on the effect that our emotions have on our intelligence; examining how anger and sadness can lead those lauded for having brilliant minds to make less-considered decisions than they might normally be perceived to make. It is also, of course, a film about war at its core; and for the first time in the series, Caesar finds himself against a skilled, tactical military mind in the form of The Colonel. Harrelson is on form as The Colonel, perfectly bringing to life a character of great military skill, who has evidently lost his way. Cinema is no stranger to depictions of military commanders who have allowed their power to corrupt them, but with The Colonel, Harrelson is able to bring not only a meticulous and ruthless soldier to the screen; but also present a deeper psychological distress beneath. The Colonel is tyrant, intent on exterminating an entire race of creatures in order to save his own and his actions are driven by fear, arrogance and hatred. Harrelson has become renowned over the last few years for his more unhinged roles and this is definitely one of them; but the danger displayed in every action and communicated in every speech stands apart in his back catalogue of work.
This trilogy is very much led by Caesar and, as such, by the incredible work of Andy Serkis. The king of motion capture performance is on form again in War, and the Caesar of this film presents a huge range of emotional and psychological depth. The old war-chief is tired; drained from a lifetime of violence against his tribe – but he stands resolute in his endeavour to protect his species. The evolution of the character across the trilogy comes to a head here, and Caesar is practically human in various regards at this stage; his use of spoken language is clear and impressive, he often holds himself upright. The subtlety in his physicality is down to the masterful work of Serkis; he transitions from Caesar’s primal and advanced movements with ease; taking Caesar back to his ape roots in motion when necessary, standing him up tall and proud when he confronts human adversity.
The work which all the motion-capture actors have put into capturing the movement of their ape characters in unreal, and the quality of the CGI and special effects which are built around them is stunning. The Apes trilogy is oft-lauded for having some of the most immersive special effects of modern film-making, and rightly so. During the larger ensemble-scenes, one could easily be forgiven for thinking that you’re watching real apes; and for the close-up shots, I caught myself on more than one occasion wondering whether they had made use of puppets or animatronics (they did not, incredibly). The level of realism is stunning and goes a long way to drawing the viewer in, combined with the incredible performances of the actors involved.
War brings two notable new characters into Caesar’s world (aside from the soldiers of Alpha-Omega); those being Bad Ape (Steve Zahn, Dallas Buyer’s Club); another intelligent ape from outside of Caesar’s tribe; and Nova (Amiah Miller, Lights Out), an orphaned mute who Caesar’s party find while tracking the soldiers of Alpha-Omega. While both put in good performances, both characters fell short for me. Bad Ape quickly becomes the main source of levity for the piece after his inclusion; and while some of his comical moments are enjoyable and the screening I was in got a few laughs out of him, some of his traits and bumbles felt a little too forced for me. The character reminded me a little too much of Dobby from the Harry Potter series for my liking; though the image of a chimp wearing a gilet and a beanie did, admittedly, tickle me a little more than it probably ought to.
My issues with Nova are difficult to go into without spoiling her entire involvement in the film; but she is very much a plot device, which I found frustrating. Her presence is used tactfully to begin with, allowing the viewer to piece together some of the underlying plot points an avoiding the use of unnecessary exposition, but when it comes to the final act she becomes involved in some frustrating sequences and ultimately ends up fulfilling the role of a Chekhov’s Gun†, which was disappointing, despite contributing to one of the most fiercely powerful moments of the entire film. Miller’s performance, however, is inspiring, as she does a lot with the character and presents multiple moments of reflection for her simian co-stars despite not saying a word.
War For The Planet Of The Apes is, overall, a fine way to close out the trilogy. It’s heavier on the action than its predecessors but resists the urge to go overboard; balancing it’s high-octane battle sequences with an intelligent story, led by strong performances behind entertaining characters. If you enjoyed the first two of this trilogy, then you’re likely to enjoy the final outing; and if you haven’t checked the series out yet, dig out Rise and Dawn and give yourself the chance to see the conclusion on the big screen – after all, that’s what the cinema is for.
War For The Planet Of The Apes is out now at Showcase, Odeon and Cineworld cinemas.
*I’m not sorry about any of these puns.
†Chekhov’s Gun refers to a theatrical device where any item visible on stage should be used. Chekhov is recorded as saying “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”