“War for the Planet of the Apes” begins deep in the wilderness. Apes are being pushed back by encroaching military force intent on exterminating the simians. After bloody conflicts and a double-cross, Caesar faces a personal tragedy that threatens to squash his humanity and ignite pure animal ferocity for vengeance.
Director Matt Reeves is unflinching in his confidence that the CGI (computer generated imagery) will be able to deliver the depth of the emotion that his performance capture artists are able to convey. Despite the epic scope of ‘War’ Reeves wants you right into the performances closed spaces. Huge canvases of expression fill the screen as we watch wave after twitching wave after flickering feeling contort the facial landscape of the characters. The depths of grief, the stoic intensity of solidarity in the face of loss, mutating ferocity in grief; it achieves a level of reality that hypnotises and never disturbs.
Andy Serkis delivers yet another spellbinding motion capture performance as Caesar. In this final film in the rebooted Apes trilogy, the technology has reached a level that it can so wholly complement the complexity of the emotions that Caesar is experiencing. He carries the weight of his species and increasingly yearns to be able to have a dialogue with humans to extinguish the fires of war that Koba ignited in the destruction of the San Francisco outpost. The inter-species conflict of those apes that were loyal to Koba, as well as those becoming sentient beings shows that high functioning survival instincts means serving humans and betraying ape kind; these conflicts are chipping away at the metaphorically towering figure of Caesar. Abandoning the luscious wilderness in the beginning of the film for the blistering snow-capped mountains of the north Californian border; the landscape is mirroring the plight of Caesar.
The entire troupe deliver such complementary re-acting for one another that they disguise the degree of difficulty in their nuanced performances. Maurice is performed with delicacy by Karin Konoval and their discovery – an orphaned girl along the way that Maurice dubs Nova (played by Amiah Miller) – act like Caesar’s moral gravity. When he feels his rage making him fly into irrationality he glances over to the frightened girl and he sees through the species to the innocence of her soul. The muscular Rocket is played by Terry Notary; he’s the reliable rock of the group who has experienced grief but continues to fight for the cause. The heavy and aptly named Luca is played by Michael Adamthwaite and it wouldn’t be out of place to see him reciting lines outside Caesar’s office on the day of his daughter’s wedding.
The sensational addition to this intense and chilling experience is Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape; a bumbling former Zoo resident found along the journey who has learned to talk by imitating the humans and whose isolation has made him a weirdo. Great casting.
The comparisons to “Apocalypse Now” are inescapable but are absolutely owned by the film, even revealing tunnels beneath The Colonel’s compound with graffiti from previous quarantined inmates calling the simian flu infection “Ape-pocalyse Now.” Harrelson in spirit clearly relishes his opportunity to ape Marlon Brando, but unlike “Apocalypse” Caesar is able to penetrate his curiosity and trigger glimpses of of the motivations and fear that lead him to this moment.
Caesar (Serkis) isn’t there to penetrate or examine the minute, that’s for the audience. Caesar instead sees what’s possible, what he saw in Koba. Caesar turning to vengeance feels like a regression for the character; however it actually feels like the pathos of “War”. Will he finally descend into madness and instinct? The haunting and scarred visions of the mad Koba and the camouflaged Colonel; Caesar’s antagonists are expanding echoes of extremity of hatred in their opposing species. The Colonel though is scarred in his psyche. Harrelson is at his best when he’s not saying a word. As his character is forced to bridge his current state of psychosis, the loss of mystique deflates the icon.
One of the wonderful conflicts of Apes is confronting the audience and the characters with species traitors. Ty Olsson is excellent as Red Donkey, a henchman for the Colonel and the only specimen that can restrain Caesar. As you’re judging those primates that have chosen a life of servitude to delay - what seems to be - human kind’s final purge of apes. You realise that you’ve quite comfortably assumed a position of “Team Ape” despite what that means for your own species in the process. That’s the great engaging quality in Mark Bomback and Reeves’ script; despite the physical embodiment of species that’s being portrayed you’ve got a barometer for the soulful humanity that’s on display. “War” is confronting because it’s so loaded with ignorance and impulse pushing these dominant species to extinction. There’s no space for diplomacy or thought in the decimated population; it’s protectionist to the point of segregation and putting down those undesirable elements.
Reeves and Bomback may be playing with actors in leotards, and the incredible CGI transformation; but the pleasure of the entire Apes series is that they’re about something. They’re ultimately about the frightening consequence of the human impulse to innovate and explore. They place a fragile humanity in a position that requires empathy and diplomacy, in the face of a threatening circumstance. They’re uncomfortable because no matter how deeply we empathise with these anthropomorphised beings, there’s an inevitable surge between humans and apes toward mutually assured destruction or at the very least, one species extinction.
Reeves has delivered the level of quality that Paul Greengrass did concluding the original “Bourne”Trilogy. At the end of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the audience shudders when Caesar calls off his apes with a “No!” In the final stages at the end of “War for the Planet of the Apes” and of the series, is a quiet dialogue between two apes. The exchange left me with chills. This series may have “Planet” in the title; but it’s an epic and personal tome of hubris, survival and wrangling with the impulse to devolve into savagery. What used to take a shout, now only takes a whisper. In short, “Apes, Strong, Together.”
"War for the Planet of the Apes" (2017)
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves (based on characters created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver)
Starring: Andy Serkis ... Caesar
Woody Harrelson ... The Colonel
Steve Zahn ... Bad Ape
Karin Konoval ... Maurice
Amiah Miller ... Nova
Terry Notary ... Rocket
Ty Olsson ... Red Donkey
Michael Adamthwaite ... Luca
Toby Kebbell ... Koba
Gabriel Chavarria ... Preacher
Judy Greer ... Cornelia
Sara Canning ... Lake
Aleks Paunovic ... Winter
Alessandro Juliani ... Spear
Max Lloyd-Jones ... Blue Eyes
Running Time: 2h 20min