War for the Planet of the Apes 2017
After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind.
July 14, 2017
Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves
Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, and Steve Zahn
War for the Planet of the Apes, the final (?) installment in the rebooted franchise launched in 2011; Rise of the Planet of the Apes was followed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2013. War brings the story of Caesar to a fitting conclusion and aligns everything with the front end of 1968’s Planet of the Apes, making this trilogy a true prequel. Through the three most recent films, we’ve seen society as we know it tip in favor of a new species; we’ve seen mankind attempt to retain control of what was once his dominion and fail miserably. Now, we see a terrified humanity facing complete subjugation, backed into a corner, lashing out like animals; meanwhile, man’s primitive ancestor evolves to a place of supremacy.
In the vein of Saving Private Ryan, War for the Planet of the Apes kicks off with an all-out battle that puts most war-themed action movies to shame. It’s a great way to get the audience’s attention immediately, delivering a shock-and-awe opener that leaves your heart pounding. The only problem with this kind of powerful intro is that it risks diluting an equally powerful climax by desensitizing viewers. While this isn’t the case with War for the Planet of the Apes per se, the film does have some pacing issues that absolutely lessen the impact of the film’s conclusion. It didn’t necessarily affect the intensity of the final battle scene, but what was designed to be a triumphant and emotional ending falls flat.
Official Synopsis: Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless colonel (Woody Harrelson). After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both of their species and the future of the planet.
War for the Planet of the Apes is directed by Matt Reeves from a script he co-wrote with Mark Bomback; in addition to Serkis and Harrelson, the film stars Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, and Amiah Miller.
I can imagine a producers’ meeting where an early draft of War for the Planet of the Apes was passed around for executive input. “Not much of a plot,” one exec notes (I imagine); “That’s okay,” his colleague replies. “Special effects have gotten so good, no one will notice. Just set up plenty of scenes with the apes talking and folks will be mesmerized.” Indeed, early and late action sequences are divided by long periods of slogging action and expository dialog; while it was always fascinating seeing the motion capture technology in action, it didn’t make up for an overall lack in depth when it came to imaginative storytelling.
While Andy Serkis is nothing short of captivating throughout, it wouldn’t be out of line to say that the motion capture technologies used to render the Ape FX is the true star of the film. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before; in fact, the science has advanced so far it makes the previous Apes installments look cheesy by comparison. I was close to hypnotized by the realism of the faces, the eyes, the mouths, lips, even tongues. The faces communicate pain, fear, rage, happiness, devastation, and just about every other emotion on a spectrum that goes from stoicism to hysteria. But fans of the Apes franchise want more than just drama; most absent from this installment are the sci-fi elements that made Rise and the original Planet of the Apes series so complex and cerebral. Beautiful, even unprecedented filming technologies can elevate any movie, but special FX should never be used as a substitute for a substantive plot.
Planet of the Apes has always had sociopolitical undertones; in the late 60s and early 70s, the films were seen as metaphors for civil rights and racism. These themes carry over into our modern era (which is unfortunate) and also speak to issues like immigration, classism, man’s abuse of the environment, and the ethics of medical research. War for the Planet of the Apes wears its politics on its sleeve. Specifically, the plot revolves around an obsessed leader’s attempt to build a wall, one he assumes will protect him from both the Ape threat and further devolutionary effects of the simian flu. It’s nothing if not a jab at the current administration and the American president’s insistence on constructing a wall along the border of Mexico.
As a horror fan and a journalist for a horror website, I hoped War of the Planet of the Apes would have more to offer. Indeed, many intriguing elements are there: Survival, dark sci-fi, dystopia, and an extinction-level event are a few. What we are given, though, is essentially a character study of Caesar’s evolution and the battle for his soul in the face of merciless tyranny. All of the franchise’s apocalyptic mythologies are pushed into the background.
Yes, there are pacing issues, but War for the Planet of the Apes is never boring. Every time an Ape is on screen, you simply can’t help but marvel at their realism. Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape is especially captivating, but even this consummate scene-stealer is relegated to class clown; he’s the Deus Machina needed for Caesar to complete his mission, but beyond that, he’s mostly utilized for comic relief. The FX are so good, the film would have been engrossing if it was just the Apes reading dictionaries to each other—seriously, they’re that good. The acting was great and the cinematography is often breathtaking. Unfortunately, these strength mask but can’t eliminate serious weaknesses, especially in the area of scripting and storytelling.
Bottom Line: Anyone who loves CGI FX will swoon over War of the Planet of the Apes. The film looks so fucking good it could probably even win over the “Practical FX or Die” Tribe. It’s pure eye candy and a great summer blockbuster for teens and hardcore fans of the Planet of the Apes franchise. It’s an absolute triumph for motion capture technologies. But it’s not as dark as the last two Apes films, and it never really produces legitimate dread or suspense. War for the Planet of the Apes is a powerful drama sorely lacking in thrills.