The term “movie magic” has lost its impact. Thanks to the advent of supercomputer-assisted filmmaking, the fantastical has become mundane. We’re no longer astonished or impressed when millions of computer generated pixels are somehowe choreographed on-screen to create something that surely could not exist in the real world – it’s simply expected. However, War for the Planet of the Apes is here to remind us what movie magic truly is.
Throughout the previous two chapters in Fox’s pseudo-prequel Planet of the Apes series we’ve witnessed bleeding edge technology as art, as the digital wizards at WETA brought to life the motion-captured performance of Andy Serkis as super-smart ape leader Caesar. What makes this franchise – and especially the latest chapter – so astounding though, is in its effortless ability to transcend its technology, as increasingly jaw-dropping as it is. Caesar and the many other digital creations to be found here are imbued with orders of magnitude more palpable, tangible, red-blooded emotion than most fully human casts can ever dream to accomplish.
And just like he did when he took over this franchise with second instalment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, director/co-writer Matt Reeves is an absolute maestro at corralling that ever-present torrent of emotion to maximum effect here. In fact, his mastery in War even exceeds his previous effort, as this trilogy becomes that rarest of movie series gems where every subsequent entry is better than the last!
This particular chapter finds weary leader Caesar and his band of apes being caught in skirmishes with a human military force led by a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson), obsessed with the complete annihilation of the apes he holds responsible for the Simian Flu that has left humanity facing extinction. When the Colonel discovers the location of the apes’ home in the California wildlands, he visits upon them a devastating attack, prompting Caesar to set aside his benign ways and embark on a quest for blood-soaked justice.
It’s a quest that will see Caesar forced to face the hairy, yellow-fanged demons of his past, as his searing need for revenge begins to echo that of Koba, the rival whose rabid stoking of the fires of hatred between ape and man nearly cost Caesar his life in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Joining Caesar are his inner circle of close friends/advisers: benevolent orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), right-hand ape Rocket (Terry Notary) and towering gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). During their journey though, the band makes two startling additions in Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a shell-shocked chimpanzee who had been living on his own after his group was slaughtered by human soldiers; and Nova (newcomer Amiah Miller), a young orphan girl as bold as she is mute who kindly Maurice takes under his care despite Caesar’s initial reluctance to have a human join them.
But Nova, just like Bad Ape, Maurice, the rest of the apes and even the Colonel, all have major roles to play as the drama surrounding Caesar, as Shakespearian as befits his name, plays out here. Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback spin a tale laden with morally complex characters who all force both Caesar and the audience to ask of themselves some emotionally intense questions of what it means to be human. It’s a narrative precipitated by broiling, seething anger, wrapped up in heartbreaking tragedy. Yet it also possesses buoyant hope, the relief of child-like laughter and examines biblical allegories.
Reeves and his entire cast walk this tightrope of emotional variances with godlike precision, and to make this balancing act even more unbelievable they manage to also stage several thrilling edge-of-your-seat action pieces throughout. These range from grungy dark corridor battles to intense small military firefights to widescreen, spine-rattling fireworks. And all of it is not just shot with masterful cohesion but looks gorgeous thanks to sweeping cinematography and artistic framing. The aural side of affairs matches this perfectly as well, with composer Michael Giacchino’s score jumping between rhythmic tribal drum beats and a retro flare that reminded me of classic 1970s movie music and I loved every pumping second of it.
You may have noticed that at this point I have yet to throw that portentous “but” in there. Well, it’s not coming. I sat racking my brain trying to think of criticisms for War for the Planet of the Apes and all I could come up with was some silly inattentiveness by the Colonel’s soldiers in the film’s third act, which could still be easily explained away in a number of different ways.
Instead of finding things to fault here, I instead sat and marvelled at the utterly powerful acting performance by Serkis as Caesar (I don’t care if the Academy needs to create a new category to accommodate Serkis’ motion-captured performance, but he needs to have Oscar gold on his mantlepiece for his staggering work here). I geeked out at the absolute spellbinding technical wizardry that seamlessly blended the most life-like digital creations I’ve ever seen with the real world. I oohed and ahhed at newcomer Amiah Miller’s breakout showing, smiled at Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape stealing scenes with loveable ease, and shook visibly with emotion as Reeves ended this saga on a poignant, pitch perfect note.
War for the Planet of the Apes is simply a tour de force of filmmaking, combining the type of CG action spectacle you need from a big budget Hollywood blockbuster, with layered intellectual drama and deep, emotionally resonant characters whose actions and words stay with you long after the credits have rolled. The original 1968 Planet of the Apes is a landmark in science-fiction, and I have no doubt that the pure movie magic that Reeves has conjured up here – and with this entire trilogy – will be admired with the same reverence for years to come.
Last Updated: July 13, 2017