As a rule, I’m not a fan of prequels. But rules were made to be broken, and “War For The Planet Of The Apes” manages to thwart two of mine: it’s a superb prequel and it’s the third chapter of a trilogy which is the best of the three.
In the aftermath of Koba’s betrayal and attack on the humans, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of apes are hiding in the Californian forests, forced into a defensive war against the aggressive and confrontational tactics of The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), leader of a fanatical platoon dedicated to the extermination of the Apes. When the human forces brutally attack the Apes’ home, they are forced to flee and Caesar must embrace his own darkness in order to save his people.
For a franchise which – across nearly fifty years and eight movies – has told the story of humanity’s fall and the apes’ ascendancy, this is the first film I can recall which is told almost exclusively from the apes’ point of view, and the experience is all the richer for it. The motion capture performances by the entire cast are stunning. While the special effects awards are surely a lock for the unparalleled work done here by Weta Digital, surely this is the film which will finally demand the recognition of motion capture actors for their performance skills. Andy Serkis’ Caesar is as fully realised and nuanced a character as any other film this year and it’s his performance – along with those of Steve Zahn (Bad Ape) and Karin Konoval (Maurice) which give the movie its soul and the emotional gravitas to explore both the apes and humans with a sympathetic and satisfying complexity.
Co-Writer & Director Matt Reeves takes the foundations he laid out in “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” and uses them to build a magnificent, towering achievement of a movie. Tense and dramatic, poignant and emotional, this is a smart and serious allegorical sci-fi movie camouflaging itself as a summer blockbuster. There’s a mythical, epic quality to the cinematography, as the action moves from the lush verdancy of the forests through the snow covered landscapes of the mountains to the stark and slyly familiar desert regions, every single frame is beautiful. It’s a cinephile’s dream to parse through, picking out the influences and references Reeves peppers throughout and while there are obvious nods to “Apocalypse Now”, “The Bridge On The River Kwai” and “The Great Escape”, he finds time to have some fun with direct homages to the closing chapter of another trilogy.
Delivering on its title right from the opening, the initial forest-bound battle scene which opens the film is everything you wish the battle between the technologically advanced Imperial Troops and the ‘primitive’ Ewoks in “Return Of The Jedi” could have been. It’s very much the same battle, with similar existential stakes, but this time convincingly and powerfully evokes the allusion to the Vietnam war far more successfully than Lucas managed in 1983. The RotJ parallel is picked up later during a confrontation between Caesar and the Colonel where Michael Giacchino’s fantastic score brings in a choral element which is deeply reminiscent of the Emporer’s Throne Room as the Colonel uses Caesar’s attachment to his people to manipulate and provoke him. If you still doubt that “Star Wars” was the in Reeve’s thoughts, there’s the impossible to ignore homage to Luke Skywalker’s confrontation with a Tusken Raider while using his binoculars, re-enacted almost exactly here.
Effectively concluding Caesar’s hero’s journey, “War From The Planet Of The Apes” ends at a point where, although you could have more movies to join the events more directly to the 1968 classic, only the most unimaginative completist would really need them. Having avoided the pitfalls which usually befall prequels, Reeves has left the franchise in fine condition, providing the studio has the wit and wisdom to quit while it’s ahead. As for Reeves’ personal future, everything here should give us home for an astonishing “Batman” movie to come and given how artfully he balanced family, war, destiny and adventure, he must surely be at the top of Lucasfilm’s list for a future episode of the “Star Wars” saga. “War For The Planet Of The Apes” is my new favourite Apes movie and the benchmark by which I’ll be measuring the rest of 2017’s offerings.