REVIEW: ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is a triumph of emotional, layered sci-fi

Rocket (Terry Notary), Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) in  War for the Planet of the Apes , directed by Matt Reeves.

Rocket (Terry Notary), Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) in War for the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matt Reeves.

Every so often, someone complains to me about how blockbuster movies are “killing” the film-going experience. They squeeze out independent filmmaking, it’s said, or they reinforce a cycle of franchise films, leaving no room for original stories. While that may be intermittently true, I have a new movie to show these despairing viewers. It’s a release that proves that a movie in a major franchise doesn’t have to be empty of feeling, or overly reliant on shiny production technology. The movie is War for the Planet of the Apes.

Make no mistake: on the surface, Matt Reeves’ film features cutting-edge motion-capture tech and the investment of an estimated $150 million (before marketing costs). But the key to the film is a focused, moving screenplay - one that finally puts all of its attention on the main character of the series, Caesar the ape (Andy Serkis), as opposed to viewing him alongside a human lead. We track Caesar through his greatest struggle, to find a lasting home for his people, an endeavour that references Old Testament stories, classic cinema, and modern politics. Big tentpole films with truckloads of CGI don’t have to be made this way, and all too often aren’t. So why not celebrate when Hollywood gets it right?

It can be easy to forget in the rush of these new Apes films that we were always heading in a single, specific direction. How did the planet that we first glimpsed in the 1968 film come to be? How did a ragtag group of primates take over the world? Each film in the trilogy brings us a little closer. Rise explains how the apes gain human-like intelligence and set off on their own. Dawn shows us how the world tears itself apart. And War lines up the final nail: how the humans lose the final thing that sets them apart: speech.

The apes are menaced by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who's recruited some disaffected apes to his cause.

The apes are menaced by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who's recruited some disaffected apes to his cause.

Much of the conflict is driven by an insane Special Forces colonel (Woody Harrelson) who is trying to exterminate Caesar’s apes because the remaining humans are steadily degenerating, falling silent as the Simian Flu mutates. Meanwhile, Caesar’s apes have an advantage, by being able to communicate with sign language, and speech when necessary. Without communication, the humans are at risk of becoming a lower form of life.

For anyone familiar with the original film, that’s a significant clue, since so much of the drama with Taylor the astronaut (Charlton Heston) hinges on his ability to speak. By this point, the ape civilization has evolved to the extent that they suppress the history of the human race, treating humans as inherently inferior because they literally have no voice. The fear and prejudice the humans once had for the apes has now flipped, making the apes in the original film just as villainous as the humans in the new films. As always, the political implications are almost deafening, but War smartly keeps this in the background, all through its insistence that the characters come first.

Maurice (Karin Konoval) becomes the guardian of a mute orphan named Nova (Amiah Miller).

Maurice (Karin Konoval) becomes the guardian of a mute orphan named Nova (Amiah Miller).

I’ll happily join the throngs clamouring for Serkis to win some sort of Oscar for his work as Caesar (Hell, create a specific mo-cap performance award if you have to, Academy!) To not only convincingly play an entirely different species, but to also imbue Caesar with a personality and flaws, is a striking achievement.

As rendered by Serkis, Caesar occupies a complicated role in the society he’s built. He’s the apes’ original leader, the figure who led them out of captivity (cue the Biblical allusions) and, in a god-like turn, the one who actively spread the virus that gave the apes their intelligence. The apes largely worship Caesar, but like any religion, there are individuals who turn away and join the other side, even when it doesn’t benefit them. Caesar wrestles with his role: how can he serve the best interests of his followers, while the circumstances of the war drive him to want personal revenge? How can he keep trusting humans, even an innocent girl like the one he discovers in an abandoned settlement, when so many of their kind have tortured and killed apes?

By having such a detailed emotional dimension, War is the kind of blockbuster that doesn’t need the flashy camera moves of its predecessor to keep you hooked. The cinematography this time is a more quietly beautiful kind, and it’s complemented by a Michael Giacchino score that takes on a wilder, less human quality as it progresses. It’s a film with all the trappings of a blockbuster, which uses them to fuel a story that would work on a much smaller scale; turn the apes into an Indigenous tribe or a religious sect, and the concept would still be sound. In that way, War for the Planet of the Apes is fulfills one of the primal tenets of science fiction, making you wish it could become the dominant species in the film industry.

War for the Planet of the Apes gets four stars out of four.


Stray thoughts

  • In a few important night scenes, it was hard to believe the apes could avoid being seen by the humans - maybe the future humans were getting dumber than we’re told?
  • If this series intends to eventually remake the original film, does this mean that a new version of Taylor has already lifted off at some point in the past?
  • It would be fascinating if a remake of the original film told it from the apes’ perspective, and continued to depict humans as the aggressors.