If the NBA Finals and blockbuster Hollywood trilogies have one thing truly in common it’s that close-out games are the hardest to pull off (unless you’re the 2017 Golden State Warriors.) The 2016 Warriors had a 3-1 lead and booted three-straight closeout games. Hollywood has also failed to stick the landing numerous times. Godfather Part III suffered from the cardinal sin of adding a precocious tween to the mix, sullying the legacy of the previous classics. Return of the Jedi introduced a merry band of teddy bears that looked like mangled Jim Henson characters and actually ended with an Olympics-style medal ceremony and ghost-waving send-off. Even recent blockbusters, Return of the King and The Dark Knight Rises struggled to juggle too many central characters and ended up being bloated versions of previous, superior chapters (I know ROTK is mostly awesome and won Best Picture but we all know that was a trilogy trophy, just let me make my point.) Suffice it to say, it’s hard to say goodbye.
Which is why it should bring us all great joy that Director Matt Reeves has not only dismounted nearly perfectly with War for the Planet of the Apes, he’s cemented the Apes-trilogy firmly near the top of the best blockbuster trilogies of all time. This is no small feat as Reeves is juggling what could be tremendously campy material (looking at you Tim Burton) and has turned it into a powerful, staggering allegory on the fate of modern humanity. War posits many tough questions for us to ponder, not only given our modern – world is burning daily – political cycle but also the current state of our ecosystem. This is not paint-by-numbers spandex and flying filmmaking – Reeves wants more and achieves it.
The center of this parable since the first chapter Rise has been Caesar – an ape who was raised in captivity and, while witnessing the tenderness of mankind, also saw the very worst of it. The abuse in Rise is tough to stomach but sets in motion a slow descent of humankind’s morality over the course of these three films as the Ape’s become the moral center. It’s not hard to root for Caesar’s victory and our demise, in fact it’s easy to welcome it.
When we meet him in War he’s a bit more weathered, a salt and pepper Ape. He and his remaining tribe have built a hidden colony in the Redwoods that they’ve hoped to fortify but a small but powerful band of humans is closing in. Soon Caesar and his companions are heading toward a safe space some of their scouts have discovered – hoping for refuge from the last remaining men.
As most of his tribe head off, Caesar and a small group set out to find the leader of the humans that uprooted them. This man is only known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson.) He’s a dastardly but cunning evil who has built himself a “human zoo” – which is essentially an old military based they’ve reinforced and turned into a makeshift concentration camp where ape-kind is forced to work under devastating conditions.
Along their journey Caesar, his trusty, compassionate companion Maurice the Orangutan (Karin Konoval) and his muscle, Rocket (Terry Notary) come across a mute human girl who they decide they cannot abandon in the winter as well as a very silly, potentially mad little chimp known only as Bad Ape (Steve Zahn – scene stealer.) Together they make their way to the human zoo to confront the Colonel and the fate of mankind.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention War’s incredible effects which are on the bleeding edge of what is possible today. Early in the film Reeves chooses to shoot a very intimate scene with Caesar and his family almost entirely in close-up. You couldn’t stand close enough to the screen to notice the difference between reality and fiction. The emotions are rendered so perfectly you’d wish they’d do it with some of the human characters.
Andy Serkais as Caesar continues to be the master of this craft. He’s now given birth (along with the brilliant animators) to some of the most iconic characters of the 21st century. Here, his Caesar is dour and beaten but that resolve he has carried for three-films is omnipresent. Playing off Woody Harrelson’s obvious Colonel Kurtz impersonation works quite well. Harrelson is a perfect madman with just enough prose to convince you his intentions may be pure.
These and many other performances combined with Reeves impeccable filmmaking chops give War a look that is uniquely its own. The film traverses snow and sun-drenched landscapes with often little dialogue yet Reeves never loses focus. His drive is singular and through Caesar and his crew he’s accomplished something great.
War is the marketing preface for this film and that is entirely misleading. Reeves first entry, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a far more action-driven film – with several stunning set-pieces. War is truly a Western – sharing more in common with film’s like True Grit or The Searchers. That’s not to say the film is devoid of action but the War is of the metaphorical sort. This is a battle for the soul of the planet, one I’m not sure we deserve to win.
War for the Planet of the Apes Opens Friday Everywhere