Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

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Ape Escape

Combing through nostalgic culture has become the norm, and unfortunately, so have the middling resulting projects. Audiences have, sadly, come to expect reboots to suffer as studios struggle to re-capture what made something popular in the first place. Yet somehow, a successful Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy came out of all of this mess. I certainly didn’t expect to be sitting here, sixteen years after watching Mark Wahlberg punch monkeys in the face, gushing about how great this trilogy has been overall.

War for the Planet of the Apes is not as strong of a film as its predecessor, 2014’s stunning Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but it is the culmination of years of excellent work from everyone involved.

War impresses from chimpan-a to chimpanzee.

Years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) is still struggling with his role in the death of his former friend and rival Koba. With the apes retreating to the forest, the last remnants of humanity have taken a more aggressive approach (sparked by Koba’s attack on them years prior) led by the militant extremist, Colonel (Woody Harrelson). When Colonel crosses the line and threatens his family, Caesar decides to travel across the states to hunt down the Colonel and get his revenge.

First things first, War is absolutely gorgeous. Somehow improving on the visuals found in the second film, War gives us flair like snowy fur, wet fur, and several visually distinct settings. This film can often be dark (both figuratively and literally), yet the lighting is kept at such a balance each motion captured ape is still distinct when sitting in caves or walking around during night scenes. And although we’ve seen it in action two films prior, the motion capture animation is still sublime. Serkis’ Caesar is, with just cause, a standout above the rest as Caesar now more closely resembles the intelligent apes found in the 70s films. I personally miss the broken English he spoke in the previous film, but a Caesar without stilted dialogue allows Serkis to evolve the character with a more nuanced performance outside of physical acting.

Each film in this modern Apes trilogy has had its own distinct flavor. Rise has an undercurrent of dread, constantly inching its way toward the expected uprising, Dawn is a clash of violence and ideologies as the new status quo is established, and War is the methodical denouement in which the stage is set for the Planet of the Apes story everyone is familiar with. Because of this, unfortunately, this film has more of a pacing issue than the others. Essentially becoming a revenge thriller as Caesar morphs into an one-ape army, War sort of meanders through the second act until the thread for the final act reveals itself. This slower pace seems entirely intentional as Caesar’s revenge arc lacks any satisfactory developments. But regardless of how this deliberately slower act reflects Caesar’s core growth toward the end of the trilogy, and conveying Caesar’s loss of hope and direction, I can’t help but think a brisker pace would make the tone of the eventual ape escape less jarring.

If all this talk of a slower, character intensive piece scares you away, no need to worry. I’m not going to go into depth about it here, but there’s a extended prison break scene and it’s probably the best thing in this entire trilogy. While War loses the grey morality of the previous two films as one side is a clear cut villain — thus losing a bit of the nuance of the rest of the trilogy — having a side to truly root for improves the trilogy overall. It’s sort of freeing, actually. The tone of the film gets a more lighthearted spin once Bad Ape (Steve Zahn, pictured below) is introduced and the pacing problems of the second act melt away completely. The final third of the film is fun, has quite a bit of metaphorically intriguing imagery, and brings the trilogy to a close in a splendid way.

When all was said and done, I couldn’t believe how this trilogy pulled it off. It’s rare you’ll get one well made reboot film, let alone an entire trilogy. The Apes trilogy has always been a sleeper hit these past few Summers, and because of the smaller attention, Matt Reeves was able to keep a steady vision for the final two films without much interference. War for the Planet of the Apes is a “blockbuster” in name only, and because of this was able to make the many brave choices it does.

I mean, it’s a film trilogy about monkey business which also includes death, hardship, disease, mediation between warring states, post-traumatic stress disorder, class struggles, and even some poop flinging for good measure.

I’m hard pressed to think of a better modern trilogy, or one that isn’t one of the big five (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Godfather, The Lord of the Rings, and Back to the Future), that could measure up to this. War of the Planet of the Apes is the finest end to a trilogy I’ve seen in a long time.

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