It is hard for me to look back on Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes and not feel some simmering disappointment. The hype was contagious, expectations were sky high and I was primed to declare War for the Planet of the Apes the resolution to one of the finest film trilogies. But by the end, I felt character spent a little too much time battling spectacle. Reeves appeared to be invested in the “war” aspect of film’s title.
This is apparent in the striking opening evoking a Vietnam War drama as tense human soldiers creep towards an ape encampment in the thick of a forest primed for an onslaught. The aspects living up to war mantle seem to be at odds with a contemplative western motif fuelling the exploration of the face of this franchise, Caesar (Andy Serkis). Chunks of War for the Planet of the Apes are set against the backdrop of snowy woody landscapes, evoking the 2013 Japanese remake of Unforgiven.
After the lines between man and ape were blurred in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar and his fellow apes are surviving by keeping their heads down in their hideout situated behind a waterfall, despite the escalation in tensions between man and ape. The apes are looking for a new home, away from the threat of humans and they appear to have found one after a recon team returns with some good news of a viable settlement.
But Caesar is pushed a step further on the spectrum of violence when a more surgical operation on the apes’ camp (compared to the fruitless opening offensive) led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) results in the death of some of Caesar’s family. Caesar is now confronted by a new form of darkness, an internal kind, the desire for vengeance. Reeves calls back to hate-filled Koba who continues to haunt Caesar, as cracks start to appear in his shell of goodness. The film proceeds to follow Caesar as he tries to make his way to The Colonel to exact his vengeance.
Caesar opts to go alone but is joined by a few other trusted apes and along the way, they run into a little mute girl who they eventually name Nova and another ape called Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who provides some comic relief. In these moments, War for the Planet of the Apes most resembles a Western. We spend a good while solely with Caesar and his men as they ride through the woods on horses, and soak in the gorgeously photographed natural woodland. I welcomed the silence that enveloped a lot of the journey as we take the time to think on Caesar’s internal conflict.
Much like in Dawn for the Planet of the Apes, there is so much to be gleaned from Caesar’s intense eyes. The special effects and motion capture wizardry are stellar. Serkis’ physicality conveys a certain weariness, grief and at times anguish enveloping Caesar but I go back to the eyes, which convey so much emotion and draws out a certain nobility and drive that makes him so relatable. Just think back to his supreme performance as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings film. We are in that hallowed territory here.
We can’t take our time with Caesar for granted; from a journey that started on a canvas of exploitation and human cruelty to the hawkish nature of man and militarism. Some of the best aspects of the first two Apes films filter into War for the Planet of the Apes. The first film in the trilogy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, showcased compelling human characters and Nova, played by Amiah Miller, is a vision of a world where apes and man coexist peacefully.
Then there are the action set pieces, which never reach the heights of Dawn for the Planet of the Apes. But Reeves crafts a few strong action set pieces, notably the opening. The remaining bouts of action, though well done, feel like irritants, side-tracking from the meditative tone in what should be the most intimate of the Apes films so far. A lot of the action in the final act felt obligatory and ponderous and again, it felt like there was spending floor this Hollywood blockbuster was compelled to reach.
There were a few glaring plot holes and stretches. Then there is the blatant and pretentious attempt to lump in the worst aspects of humanity under the dark gritty umbrella of The Colonel – Holocaust concentration camps; check. Slavery complete with a whipping scene; check. Whichever culture was responsible for crucifixions; check. Come on Reeves. These fumbles keep the Apes films from being a sure fire bet as one of the best film trilogies. This, however, should not take away from a satisfying character piece and Caesar should go down as one cinema’s iconic heroes.
War for the Planet of the Apes at its philosophical core is a compelling mirror for humanity, showcasing what we should aspire to and, unfortunately, what we actually settle for – willing cogs in a cycle of violence. This is a pathology we have seen explored before in cinema. In many instances, we are left with the resignation man will opt for violence when pushed against the wall. When overcome with loss and grief, aggression seems to be the natural progression. Reeves acknowledges this fact but reminds us with some humanist beats that we still have a choice.