You would be tempted to call it the anti-blockbuster franchise if it wasn’t made up of three sure-fire blockbusters. Still it’s a label that seems to fit the newest “Planet of the Apes” prequel/reboot series. It has all the big budget bells and whistles yet there is clearly more going on underneath the blockbustery surface and it’s not hard to recognize its attempts at more provocative explorations.
Despite the rousing critical praise (for the most part) it has received, my relationship with the series is a weird one. Both of the previous films, 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, are really good movies that have their own nagging missteps. But despite their issues, each film had its hooks in me enough to leave me genuinely excited for its follow-up. So that brings me to the latest installment that continues the Caesar trilogy and the trend of awkward movie titles – “War for the Planet of the Apes”.
For some (unfortunately), how condemning or forgiving they are may depend on which political magnifying glass they choose to look through (yes, I’ve actually seen this ). Much like the previous two films, “War” has statements it wants to make. And much like the previous films, those statements are often thought-provoking and occasionally a tad heavy-handed. But messaging has never been the problem. Instead it was a handful of story angles that would sometimes trip them up. Nothing major, but they are there. For the most part “War” rights those issues.
“Dawn” ends with Caesar, the leader of the ape clan, acknowledging that war with the humans is all but inevitable. “War” begins with an explosive sequence revealing Caesar’s prophecy to be true. Troops from a military group calling themselves Alpha-Omega launch a sneak attack on an ape base in the forest. Returning director Matt Reeves’ staging of this sequence is exquisite. It’s beautifully shot and incredible to watch. There is also a lot of information we can glean concerning what’s to come.
Tired of the heavy casualties, Caesar (magically played by a returning Andy Serkis) moves from revolutionary to Moses figure and agrees to lead the apes out of the forest and to an isolated spot across the desert. Before they can leave they are hit by Apha-Omega and Caesar has a face-to-face with their leader Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson). The attack is repelled, but for Caesar the results are intensely personal. He commands his clan to head for the desert while he seeks revenge, accompanied only by three of his most loyal (and insistent) friends.
It’s here that “War” really hits its stride. The group’s effort to track down McCullough leads them north where they encounter several characters both human and simian. None are better than Steve Zahn who plays Bad Ape, a chimpanzee who lived in the Sierra Zoo prior to the Simian Flu outbreak. Zahn does a lot of interesting things both comically and dramatically. It’s a well-balanced character and performance that never pushes the ‘comic relief’ role too far.
Staying with performances, it has taken time for many people to warm up to Andy Serkis’ style of acting, but by now his unique skills as an actor should be beyond doubt. There is simply no one better at what he does. This is evident by his work in “War” which is the pinnacle of everthing he has done in the Caesar role. It’s Oscar caliber stuff. If only the Academy will take notice.
The story pulls its influences from a wild assortment of films. Early resemblances to old school westerns like “The Outlaw Josey Wales” give way to shades of “The Great Escape” once the film shifts to what is essentially a prison movie. This is also where it loses a bit of its momentum and stretches out about fifteen minutes too long. Allusions to the Holocaust and concentration camps are effective yet it’s a fairly dramatic shift that takes too much time to develop and play out. And back to influences, it doesn’t take much of an eye to notice the similarities between Harrelsen’s McCullough and Brando’s Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now”.
“War” finally gets back on its feet and the pulse-pounding finale feels just right. The film ends with the story and franchise in strong place. Of course it won’t stay there. Another film is already said to be in the works. As for this installment, I feel it’s the best of this new series and despite its lag in the middle it avoids the narrative hiccups from the past film. More importantly it does justice to this central character who we’ve spent so much time with and genuinely care about.
VERDICT – 4 STARS