War For The Planet of the Apes
Review by Paul Preston
Looking for that fun vacation-time diversion in the movie theater? This ain’t it. This is one of the more sober and dark summer films to hit the cinema in a long while. But it’s effective. This is a war movie. I’m curious to see how it compares to the all-human war movie Dunkirk, coming out next week.
The centerpiece of these Planet of the Apes reboots is Caesar, the ape from Rise of the Planet of the Apes who gains the ability to think and speak like a human. By this third film in the franchise, he is the head of a large resistance of apes who wish to live and evolve in the forest, free from man. But the events of the past movies have already set in motion a war with man that can’t be stopped, and this part of the war is spearheaded by Woody Harrelson’s “The Colonel”. Caesar and The Colonel could easily be two sides of the same coin warring against each other, but the script by Mark Bomback and director Matt Reeves designs the characters as more complicated and unique.
Caesar, after the effects of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, just wants peace, and he will set out on his own to get it and prevent risking the lives of his followers. He’s a fierce and smart leader, but an ultimately sad character, wearing a world of responsibility and pain on his shoulders. Harrelson’s Colonel has to deal with more than the apes as the Simian Flu continues to show its effects and man, of course, never misses a chance to war with himself. In fact, make the world remotely primal and man will easily slip back into two of his favorite pastimes – totalitarianism and slavery! Both are on display under The Colonel’s hardline leadership.
So, there’s much for Caesar to wade through, and it’s an ugly route to try and save his soul. There’s almost as much death by gunfire as in Wonder Woman! All the elements of the “War” in the title are there – sacrifice, slaughter, ideology, torture. It’s most definitely Hostile Combat in The Planet of the Apes. Through it all, Andy Serkis continues his mesmerizing portrayal of Caesar. His six-year, three-film arc is wildly impressive, and anyone who thinks his acting is ‘helped-up’ by computer graphics, think of it this way: Serkis gives a great performance working THROUGH and perhaps DESPITE all the layers of visuals drawn over his body. He’s not phoning this stuff in and letting Apple computers pick up the slack. His research and specificity come through in great detail. He will appear in next year’s Black Panther, but his work as Caesar is truly a marvel.
Harrelson continues an improbable career where he every character he plays is different from the previous. There’s no way casting him should work in half the roles he gets, and yet, he zeroes in and pulls it off. His crazy-diverse resume includes Natural Born Killers, White Men Can’t Jump, The Messenger, True Detective, Zombieland and No Country for Old Men. Dude can play anything. I look at casting War’s fight-hungry colonel on paper and I probably start thinking “Josh Brolin” or “Laurence Fishburne”, but Woody Harrelson? He nailed it – the toughness, the charm and the sadness.
On the tech side, the film delivers on all fronts, from war-torn locations to solid photography that saves us the CGI trickery of flying all over the place. D.P. Michael Seresin wisely shoots in a classic style, and it helps the film feel majestic in its storytelling. But the tech angle that dominates the film is the seamless creation of hundreds of apes. I remember seeing the first film and thinking, “Wait, NONE of these apes are real?”. It was the filmmaker’s goal to go CGI with all the apes so to not find themselves in a situation where they’re abusing them, which was one of the themes Rise of the Planet of the Apes rallied against. By now, apes are riding horses and shooting guns, so it’s pretty clear these aren’t real apes, but it’s also pretty tough to tell they’re built from scratch. And it’s not just the magic of making us believe they exist that works, but the fact that they succeed at being excellent actors. Beyond Serkis, Karin Konoval’s work as Maurice is sublime and nuanced where Terry Notary’s work as Rocket succeeds equally in his muscles-first energy.
I think I really needed something adult after all the condescending blockbusters of the summer so far like The Mummy, Pirates 5, King Arthur and more. If you’re feeling you need that, War For The Planet of the Apes fits the bill.