All hail Caesar.
We fade in on a series of words. Rise. Dawn. War. Perhaps these words could have been used to describe every conflict in human history. In this context however, they refer to the apes, who were once the inferior species on the planet, now becoming so powerful and so many that they’ve pushed humanity on the verge of extinction. The sad part is that it was never in the ape’s intentions to do so. Nature has simply taken its course.
In this penultimate moment building up over the course of several years, War for the Planet of the Apes finds the ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) picking up the pieces of his broken life. War with the humans ravages the ape’s home day by day. Apes are dying every week from the attacks. And no matter how much Caesar pushes for peace, the humans keep pushing back for war. Like any general during wartime, Caesar is stuck in a cycle of violence, and he’s powerless to do anything about it.
One day, the ape’s forest home is raided and they are forced to flee from the carnage. The apes band together and find a new, safe location miles away from the humans in the desert. Caesar, however, cannot forget or forgive the deaths that the humans have caused. Now determined to avenge his fallen brethren, Caesar sets out alone to find the man who killed them and finally end this insufferable war.
I never expected to get so wrapped up into a movie about talking monkeys fighting against human beings. I especially didn’t expect to be rooting against my own species. Yet, that’s exactly what happened when I watched War for the Planet of the Apes, an epic and emotional conclusion to this prequel trilogy that functions as a summer blockbuster, a war drama, and a somber tragedy all at once. Few films reach the depth and the complexion that War for the Planet of the Apes reaches, even fewer that belong to a franchise.
First things first: Andy Serkis as Caesar. Holy cow. Serkis has always been a powerhouse actor in motion-capture performances, with his roles ranging from the cowardly and bipolar Gollum in Lord of the Rings to the angry giant monster in King Kong. With Caesar, however, he’s always displayed an intimacy and acuteness to the character that makes him believable not just as an ape, but as a husband, father, and leader struggling with the consequences of war. With Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Serkis displays how accurate he can be in portraying animalistic behaviors. With War however, he displays that alongside the emotional gravity that is attached to Caesar, the internal conflict of an ape who longs for peace but is pursuing it through fields of dead bodies, human and ape alike. This is simply a masterful performance delivered by the talented Andy Serkis. If he does not get nominated for an Oscar for this performance, then he deserves a special achievement statuette at the very least.
The character is also written extremely well, just like all of the characters are in this epic. Reportedly sitting in a theater for hours just for the purpose of watching movies, director Matt Reeves and writer Mark Bomback pulls inspiration from any source they could find, from Bridge on the River Kawaii to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. There really are a lot of similarities between War for the Planet of the Apes and other war dramas. The crippling effects on an established society, the murderous instinct that grows within its soldiers, the post-traumatic stress that comes from battle, even the God complexes that some generals amass victory after victory. This truly is a layered film, filled with a plethora of ideas and conflicts that make all the characters and their struggles interesting. A movie about talking animals has no business being this compelling or thought-provoking, yet War for the Planet of the Apes swiftly earns its title as the best Planet of the Apes movie out of the series.
The visual effects, of course, are as spectacular as they’ve always been. Not just with the explosions and action sequences, but also with its animation of the apes, their movements, and how they look and feel like real mutated animals. Viewers cried foul play a few years back when Dawn of the Planet of the Apes lost the best visual effects Oscar to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. I genuinely believe this film has a better chance of nabbing the award than Dawn does, mostly because its job is so much harder. While the effects team still has to adapt the ape’s movements and mannerisms (even more this time, because the film almost entirely focuses on the ape’s perspective), they also have to animate the ape’s strained emotions and facial expressions. Capturing the intimacy of that is hard, especially in animated form. Yet when the ape’s tear up, cry, snort their nostrils in anger, or smile, it feels like a real animal is in front of you performing these movements, not a visual effects artist from behind a computer screen.
You should be aware that War for the Planet of the Apes is not an action film, even though it is marketed to look like one. I saw a lot of kids in the screening I attended, and many of them were restless and anxious because there wasn’t a lot of movement happening on-screen. That doesn’t mean that the film is boring, but it does mean that it takes time to build up its story and illustrate the emotions that characters are experiencing. Because it takes this time to invest in itself, War for the Planet of the Apes ends up becoming a masterful picture, equal parts powerful, emotional, and morally conflicting. I knew there had to be some reason why it’s main protagonist was named after a Shakespearean tragedy.