A cinematic universe that doesn’t monkey around.
Director: Matt Reeves
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
US Release: July 14, 2017
The first apes movie came out in 1968, and since then there have been countless sequels, prequels, spinoffs, tv shows, and even a cartoon. In 2011, however, the brand was revitalized with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a new interpretation of the series that maintained the political and social commentary that so prominently influenced the original film, and added a unique narratively powerful story of the young, hyperintelligent ape, Caesar. While the first of this new trilogy was relatively underwhelming, this new cinematic world has proved one of the most consistently entertaining, and while Marvel continuously puts forth good, if never great, content, DC…tries, I guess, and everything else from King Kong to Dracula to the Transformers try to catch up on this cinematic universe trend, our apes series is left almost entirely out of the discussion between its releases, something that utterly confounds me. Steadily improving in quality and craftsmanship, War for the Planet of the Apes is the best blockbuster of 2017 so far, and proves that studio universes can be more than pandering money making machines.
Being, for all intents and purposes, the third of its mostly self-contained prequel trilogy, War both thrives by learning from the mistakes of its predecessors and falls flat from the usual hinderances of the third film in a trilogy. The good is clear off the bat; while Rise suffered from lazy set design, quickly-outdated effects, and mediocre-at-best performances from the human cast, War has, after stumbling but largely improving its way through Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second of the three, mastered the elements it had trouble grasping on its first and second outings.
The first thing noticeably spectacular in War is the cinematography. Michael Seresin, the cinematographer for the project who took over for Andrew Lesnie after Rise, was allowed to stretch his filmmaking muscles from the first shot, a haunting image of the human soldiers called from the north in Dawn looking for the apes in the woods, where Caesar is supposedly in command of the combat that has purveyed for the two years since the previous film. The soldiers fan out in gorgeous fashion, firing at the apes and sparking their rebuttal attack from the forest fog, initiating the first action set piece, which throws bodies around with dark reverence, reminding us with every casualty how human these perishing animals have become. The violence is not fun; as beautiful as the filmmakers have made it, there is a harrowing sense of helplessness as apes and humans alike are slaughtered on the luscious jungle battlefield.
The story here, and the weight behind it, is largely from the previous films, recapped in a handy and stylistic prelude of text before the soldiers enter the frame. However, the world, and the emotion behind every new character, is not tied to any franchise. Rather, words etched into every soldiers helmet breath life into their prejudice, and the unique scarring on the fantastically designed costumes and props show a war torn civilization clawing for survival. Much like George Miller’s subtextual lore underlying Mad Max: Fury Road, Matt Reeves, the director of War, has crafted an intense story not only off the back of the prior two films, but in the subtleties of every frame of this one. The shock alone of seeing a gorilla aiding a human in reloading, and the quick and not at all clunky explanation that they have sold their identities to become nominal “donkeys” (as in Kong), branded uniquely to distinguish them from their ape-loyal brethren and degrade them, is a fantastic example of how Reeves is clearly aware of the attachment the audience has to the lore and shows in the first minute of the film that he is fully prepared to subvert our expectations and demonstrate the true toll that a war can take. This corruption of the apes also further blurs the lines between good and evil, accentuating the damage fear and anger can do.
The greatest commentary and enemy painted by Reeves is of the aforementioned fear. When the fighting has died down and only Red, the main donkey ape, Preacher, a soldier played by Gabriel Chavarria, and a handful of other humans remain, they are taken into the apes’ base and Caesar is seen for the first time. His introduction, however, is in no way plain. Rather, we are walked through the ravaged ape outpost through his eyes, seeing each individually rendered ape in its unique personality reach out for assurance in a disturbingly gorgeous sequence, and only then is the protagonist revealed, aged and weathered beyond his years by the war he has led and the apes we have just seen for which he feels a deep responsibility.
Caesar then meets with his captives, and the humans bait their enemy commander by calling him an animal, to which he solemnly recounts that he killed the ape responsible for the war, Koba, and now he fights only to protect apes. This is played to be hypocritical as Red, the “donkey” ape, is working for the humans, but Caesar declares Red to be afraid of what Caesar will do to him and still a supporter of Koba, prompting jeers from the enemy gorilla and inciting fear and conflict upon on Winter’s, a cool-looking albino gorilla accompanying Caesar during the interrogation, demeanor. The pain we see here in Andy Serkis’s face as Caesar, to see one of his own betray so completely the values he cherishes, is an epic tale within itself…but Serkis’s performance is something we will talk about later.
Ordering Winter to take Red outside, Caesar ties up the humans and sends them back to the colonel, explaining to his old friend Maurice the orangutang, played with a sincere warmth and subtextual kindness by Karin Konoval, that the mercy would be received as a message that, if given the woods, the apes would happily cede the humans their land and the fighting could stop. Before the group can get any respite, however, screeches are heard and Winter appears, seemingly injured, to report Red’s escape. Taking the occurrence in strides, Caesar collects himself and the group pushes on.
Moving through the woods in a montage shot, again, beautifully, passing by more graffiti and scarred flora that fleshes out the world the characters inhabit, the group soon arrives at a waterfall, where they gain some recess from the action. Soon after, Caesar’s son Blue Eyes, played by Max Lloyd-Jones, and Rocket, Terry Notary’s strong ape from Rise, return from a scouting mission and report that they have found a sanctuary for the apes beyond the mountains to which they must migrate. Winter here seems severely intent on leaving quickly, before nightfall, but, at a look from Caesar, Serkis’s immense presence commanding obedience, falls quiet but visibly upset at the agreed plan to wait and organize before the journey. During our introduction to the apes’ hideout we meet the rest of Caesar’s family, Cornelia, his wife played by Judy Greer, and Cornelius, his son played by Devyn Dalton, as well as his son’s lover, Lake, a new ape played by Sara Canning. The love and connection relayed so subtly through the animation and performances here is incredible, as even without the prior two films setup, we instantly understand the power of the bond these apes share, helped in no small order by Serkis’s incredible facial movement…something I’ll talk more about later.
For the opening scenes of the film, the camera is wide and sweeping, suggesting the large-scale epic of conflict and migration which the apes are faced with. The type of shots shift with the tone of the movie, a clever immersion device Reeves used, however, and the first major shift comes the night after Blue Eyes’s return. Awoken by the green glow of machine guns, Caesar, leaving Blue Eyes to protect his family, must, in a scene so tense it rivals any horror film we have seen so far this year, sneak through his home and alert the guards of the humans’ presence. Despite one or two fake-outs, it seems as if the apes will be safe, thanks to the patrols, but Caesar soon hears on one of the soldier’s communication devices that, “Kong is dead,” changing everything.
Rushing back to his resting place, fearing the worst, we first meet Woody Harrelson as the colonel, revealed in a terrifying mask of face-paint with madness in his eyes, a petrifying and mysterious introduction to the merciless antagonist. We are then shown the corpses of both Blue Eyes and Cornelia, enraging Caesar who, despite being shot at, leaps at the colonel, who escapes by helicopter after cutting the rope on which Caesar pursues him, casting the ape down into the waterfall below. Here, Serkis demonstrates a deep shift of Caesar’s priorities and morals in only his facial expression, as hatred blossoms in his sole and the incredible actor portrays it with a necessary nuance…something we’ll see more of throughout the film.
After the attack, the apes prepare to leave their base and travel to the safe land discovered by Caesar’s late son, shot to clearly emulate refugees suffering from persecution and seeking a safe place to rest in the modern world. This, while leaving little room for interpretation, supports expertly the theme of fear running through the movie, tackling specifically the fear of peoples who seek only asylum and, in turn, act negatively, largely out of their own fear, an extremely topical discussion. Caesar, however, reveals he will not be accompanying his subjects; he plans to hunt down the colonel and murder him in cold blooded revenge.
This marks the genesis of Caesar’s fall into fear, as he shows that he, too, can succumb to the anger it espouses, like Koba before him. The main three followers, Maurice, Rocket, and Luca the gorilla, most distinct in their design and present in the franchise since Rise, pursue their leader, however, refusing to allow him to carry out his quest alone. The rest of the first act plays out with a very similar feel to Logan, as it tightens its shots and focuses on the more personal hunt for the colonel. They come upon an abandoned settlement and kill a man who attempts to attack the apes, revealing the lack of mercy growing within Caesar’s heart through the sheer disgust Serkis portrays for his victim. While searching the camp, the group finds the first major new protagonist, a young girl named Nova.
Nova is found with steaks of blood dripping from her nose, and a doll marked by two distinct red dots next to her on the bed, later revealed to be the symbol for infected humans. The audience at this point is well cognizant of the simian flu that, while making apes smarter, wiped out the majority of humanity, and it becomes clear that some mutated form is responsible for the girl being unable to speak and being left behind by any humans, save the one Caesar killed. While Caesar, in his blind rage, is prepared to leave Nova behind, Maurice insists they keep they girl with them. The moment in which Maurice first interacts with the girl deserves special mention, as she struggles to speak and is aided by Maurice’s grunts and subtle noises, a sterling example of the film’s phenomenal sound design and character building.
The group continues on, Caesar stealing dirty looks at the girl as he travels, until they come across a military base housing Winter who, it is revealed, betray Caesar’s location to Red in order to guarantee some sanctuary as a “donkey”. Winter reveals that the colonel has gone to the Canadian border to meet with a larger human army, however, and that the rest of them will leave the next morning. Killing Winter, the group awaits the next day by a campfire, in which Caesar envisions Koba, a hauntingly realistic rendering of a bloodied and scarred murdered comrade, before being awakened by Nova and Maurice so the group can follow the migrating soldiers.
Traveling ever northward, the crew misplaces their targets when they arrive deep in a snowy wilderness, stopping at a tower to survey the landscape after finding three mortally wounded humans all with blood from their nose and unable to speak, much like Nova, who are also marked by the two dots found on Nova’s doll and who the apes kill to save from their suffering. While the apes climb an abandoned radio tower, Nova is left on a horse below, and is soon approached by a shadowy figure concealed by human clothes. Stealing a gun, a horse, and binoculars, the figure escapes, pursued by our heroes. Chased back to a ski lodge, the interior of which is dressed to spectacularly resemble a palace of ice, it quickly comes to light that the mystery man is in fact an old, balding ape, played by Steve Zahn. Over the course of the next few scenes, this ape is revealed to go by the name, “Bad Ape,” a result of his tragic background in a zoo from which he, and none of his brethren, has escaped and survived.
In a movie that until this point has been so intensely tragic and driven by fear and revenge, it is largely refreshing to meet Zahn’s Bad Ape. The character design, while impeccably realistic, like the rest of the films animation, is charming and cute, and while the virus that afflicts the girl and wiped out the human race has made him smarter, he has not interacted with the other apes who mostly speak in sign language, meaning he can only communicate through broken speech, and can therefor only communicate through Caesar and other hyper-intelligent characters who have learned to talk. Bad Ape, like Nova’s endearing struggle to persevere and communicate through her illness, is a ray of bright levity in the bleak War universe, though it is not without its pitfalls. While Nova highlights Reeve’s ability to extract genuine connection with silent, alien characters through her interaction with the apes, Bad Ape talks incessantly, and it begins to grate the nerves shortly after his introduction. One particular set of scenes stand out in my mind to highlight the good and bad about the character. While around a fire, Bad Ape insists the group not go to a “human zoo” he discovered, which Caesar deduces is a military compound. While having the would-be tedious discussion, Bad Ape has a charming back and forth with Nova who keeps trying to play with an old Chevrolet Nova ornament (later prompting Maurice to grant the child the name.) While this interaction is heartwarming and laugh inducing, it is juxtaposed with jarring slapstick, like Bad Ape running offscreen to retrieve something only to fall with a crash and sheepishly declare, “I’m ok,” a line stereotypical to formulaic, PG-rated, cash-in comedies.
This isn’t to say the character is without dramatic weight. Reeves perfectly infuses heart into the ape during a conversation with Caesar, in which Bad Ape notices that Caesar treats Nova with a reverence that suggests Caesar has lost a child of his own. After recounting that he, too, has lost children and family to the humans, Bad Ape agrees to help hunt the colonel. This discussion also highlights again not only Serkis’s gut-wrenching acting…which will come up again later…but the humanity of the effects, which, in an effort to cut down on redundancies, I will state now are ostensibly the best I have ever seen in a film. What once would have been an awkward and quickly dated slog of mis-rendered uncanny valley beasts fit only to induce headaches outside of 3D (see Avatar), CGI has become something seemingly more tangible than puppets, and the emotion in the eyes and wrinkles of the beasts’ faces is more than many human actors can hope to conjure, highlighting both the wonders of this films budgetary priorities and the acting ability of the leads. While this technological wonderment is astounding, however, the most impressive thing is that you begin to forget that it is so amazing, as the all-but-real apes seem remarkably usual and all but the most intently critical forget that much of these scenes exist only in a room painted green. I normally wouldn’t comment too much on effects, as technology advances so rapidly that it is often a product of the time in which the movie is viewed and not representative of the film itself, but these really are something special.
The following day, the group heads out, but not before Nova and Luca share a spectacularly sweet moment, with Nova reaching for flowers from a tree and Luca aiding her, placing a blossom in her hair. The scene is eye-wateringly beautiful and again conveys genuine connection wordlessly.
The group arrives at the military compound, but soon discovers that the rest of the apes, who were supposed to have made it to the sanctuary discovered by Blue Eyes, have been captured and are being held prisoner, some strung up on crucifixion-like x’s as warnings and most in giant outdoor cages. While scouting the perimeter, Caesar is attacked, and Luca sacrifices himself to protect his leader, his death marked sentimentally by Nova placing her flower on his ear. Deciding to storm the castle and leave Rocket, Maurice, Nova, and Bad Ape outside, Caesar marches up to the gates with a shotgun after untying a crucified ape who tells him of the group’s imprisonment, but is quickly captured by Red.
The movie takes a dramatic shift at this point, as the revenge-driven hunt for the colonel fades away, and the task becomes one of grand exodus, the prison taking on the role of antagonist over Harrelson after a mildly-annoying, over the top speech to Caesar, who is put in the mass cage. Subsequently, Reeves changes the way he shoots the film, highlighting again his utilization of photography to accentuate the intended scale of scenes, which now hold a more sweeping and broad significance, and a goal not of retribution, but of the survival of a species. This also shifts the task of the movie going forward, which becomes, superficially, to show escape from the prison, providing a straightforward goal, reminiscent again of Fury Road in its simplistic grander design but intensely personal smaller moments, as the goal, being fully laid out, can be cast into the background to make room for moving character moments.
One of these incredible moments comes the day after Caesar’s capture. The apes are being forced to build a wall around defensive systems, though they have not been given food or water in the three days since their seizure, and some of the workers are unable to perform their tasks due to weakness. This prompts Caesar to stand up to the colonel, inciting the cessation of work from the rest of his kin. Shooting outright the ape who could not perform the work, the colonel places his gun against Caesar’s forehead and begins to count to five, though Caesar simply stares him down with immense bravado until Lake spurs the rest of the apes into working to save their leader’s life. The intensity in this confrontation, from both the colonel about to shoot Caesar and Serkis’s portrayal of the hopeless bravery conjured in his seemingly final hour, is tangible, and a lasting, terrifying image. The apes resuming their work, and other scenes involving large numbers of onscreen characters, also conjure lasting images, as the impressive attention to detail, even with immense amounts of things happening on screen, calls grand musicals of the golden era of Hollywood into mind.
This camera work is impressive, and the momentary editing is also astoundingly engaging, meaning individual shots and action flow incredibly smoothly and cuts are almost unnoticeable, something that is to be revered in a world that can release something as blatantly against the principles of editing as…Suicide Squad…
Problems begin to arise, however, when one looks at the structural editing. While scenes like the wall building standoff are terrifyingly intense, they are followed up by the apes outside who consist largely of comic relief characters. While some of their interactions provide useful levity, and the passages beneath the camp they explore, which were used to escape the compound by those who had Nova’s disease, are rich with story hidden in graffiti and other set design choices, the over-the-top and exponentially obnoxious behavior of Bad Ape starts to negatively effect the film’s proceedings. Furthermore, while I largely took no issue with this part of the film, many I have spoken to have found that the tonally dissonant scenes placed together detracted from the flow of the plot, creating a slogging effect during the second act instead of the intended sensation of being trapped by the prison along with our heroes.
The second act’s other major problem is with Woody Harrelson as Colonel McCullough. While the character was introduced as a ghostly monster of a man, and the film bred fear for him, as his first few words were only whispered over telecom devices with soldiers, his introductory monologue in the prison when Caesar is captured and a subsequent monologue he delivers after “crucifying” Caesar in the middle of the camp, take a much more cartoonish turn. While the first of these speeches seems intentionally larger than life, meant to accentuate his boatful perceptions of his ape-hating cause, it becomes clear in his second, more exposition-full monologue that there will be no payoff to this characterization and he is simply an unremarkably-written villain. Cutting Caesar down and bringing him to his office with Red and Preacher, who always seem to witness the inhumanity of the colonel and humanity of Caesar from the background, be it during the wall building sequence or monologues such as this one, McCullough describes the background story of the humans that has been inferred throughout the picture.
The simian flu, he explains, has mutated, no longer killing its victims but rendering them primitive in their actions and thinking, something we have seen in Nova and the injured humans in the snow. The colonel, we are told, had a son who was one of the first to contract this new strain, and he, along with all who cared for him, also caught the virus, necessitating their murder at the hands of McCullough. The colonel’s subsequent harsh treatment of the infected, however, increasing exponentially in severity, drew the attention of the rest of the human army, which, it is revealed in a genuinely unnerving twist, is the threat the apes are building a wall to defend against, as their disapproval for McCullough, and his split from their command, has necessitated violent quelling of his cause. While this is a tragic story, and the impending attack provides an exciting push to escape the prison quickly, the exposition-heavy delivery and Harrelson’s over-the-top evil draw the audience out of the scene, a travesty considering the struggle espoused within Caesar when the hypocrisy of calling the colonel merciless is pointed out, considering Caesar’s plan to murder him in blind rage.
Tied back up, Caesar, after a not-at-all subtle neo-nazi parodying morning ritual in which McCullough literally shaves his head before his soldiers, witnesses his apes receiving food and water, a scene of levity that does not rely on slapstick and goofy yelling, unlike the apes outside the camp, who, tangentially, have found routes underground to aid in escape. Caesar is given only a bucket of water dumped on his head, a critical move considering the harsh winter conditions of the camp. Still, he is thanked by Lake, and he is strong enough to survive until being cut down and moved into a private cage from which he is released during the day to work. While still hanging, however, he is met again by a vision of Koba, this time reminding us of the Colonels words and questioning Caesar’s remaining morality, which is revealed to be a hallucination projected onto Red, there to cut him down, but not before Caesar questions if he really thinks the colonel will save him, and what is really left of him to save.
While in his new cage, Caesar is visited by Nova, who walks into the camp seemingly unnoticed, a jarring trend displayed by the soldiers to, when convenient to the script, not notice anything going on around them. She leaves with him her doll, but is unable to leave the camp, as the soldiers have snapped back to competency, requiring Rocket to turn himself into the prison to create a distraction for her to run back to Bad Ape and Maurice, conveniently and unrealistically close to but still beyond the prison gates.
The escape occurs relatively quickly after this sacrifice, as Rocket communicates with Lake and Caesar to organize an escape through the tunnels found by the outside group, with minor hinderances along the way, and one too many dumb moments from Bad Ape, who, despite this, still proves to have some cute endearment left, and while the colonel gets hold of the doll, the apes are almost completely evacuated by the time the human army attacks. It is important to note how unrealistic and incongruous with the bleak and grounded nature of most of the film this is, as a grand heist moving an entire race to freedom through a hole in the ground occurs unnoticed in around ten minutes, almost as if a studio needed a happy ending to come in under three hours.
So begins the big final battle, what all of the film has been leading to, but when the alarms sound, the apes have already left the prison, all but Caesar and the donkeys remaining. Caesar laments to Rocket that killing the colonel has become his “Koba”, as his hate has consumed him too much to return to the larger group, so while, in an incredibly epic collection of shots, the war between the colonel’s army and the rest of the humans lights up the scenery, Caesar climbs to the colonel’s office. When he reaches the colonel, however, it is revealed that he has been infected by the doll and completely lost his mind, leading him to actively take the gun held by Caesar and hold the barrel against his head. While this could easily be a stereotypical scene of a man who cannot live with what he has become, Harrelson’s wordless portrayal of insanity and Caesar’s immense conflict between killing the now-primitive creature and sparring him like he knows is ultimately right proves a captivating moment, aided immensely, like so many other scenes, by Serkis’s awe-inspiring performance. In the end, Caesar leaves the gun by McCullough, who picks it up and murders himself.
The war, however, still rages on, and, after narrowly escaping some soldiers who have come to find the missing-in-action colonel, Caesar takes a belt of grenades and heads to destroy a massive gas tank behind the wall from which the once-colonel led human soldiers fire. The first wave of their attackers having been repelled, the gunmen atop it now fire at the apes beyond trying to leave the battleground, sparking some slight second thoughts in the eyes of Red, noticeably disturbed by the massacre. Before he can spark an explosion, however, Caesar’s grenade is shot from his hand by Preacher, who we have already been informed is the sharpest shooter in the colonel’s army. Preacher, however, does not immediately finish Caesar off, fantastic payoff for the apprehension he has held subtly in his eyes throughout the examples of the colonel’s brutality he has witnessed and the examples of the apes’ profound sentience that have, throughout the film, noticeably moved him. Before he has the chance to shoot Caesar, however, which, it appears, he will ultimately do, Red fires at him from the wall, killing him, after being abused and shouted at to his breaking point. While this prompts the murder of Red, making him another of the film’s deeply moving sacrificial characters, it buys Caesar the time to destroy the gas tank, setting off a chain of explosions that eventually level the prison.
While the rest of the apes have made it to an overlooking cliff, Caesar is still relatively close, and impaled by Preacher’s first shot of an arrow, when the rest of the human army arrives, celebrating their victory against the colonel before seeing Caesar. Before they can attack, however, a massive avalanche, triggered by the explosions, clears the valley of all but the apes, who take shelter in the trees, and while it is a painfully lucky, “deus ex machina,” it does provide a satisfying image of the valley wiped clean for the planet’s ape-led future.
From here, the apes take one final pilgrimage to the desert land promised by Blue Eyes, reminiscent, like Caesar’s son Cornelius and Nova, of the 1968 film, and Caesar and Maurice have on final discussion on the apes’ legacy before Caesar, finally home for the first time since his window in Rise, assured by the first spoken words of Maurice that he will be remembered and known by all, especially his surviving son, dies in peace.
A beautiful, hopeful, and heartwarming ending is perfectly uplifting for the bleak and painful film that, ultimately, is about overcoming personal fear and allowing oneself to find the virtue of hardship and forgive those who have roused hate and cowardice in the soul. While it suffered from Bad Ape’s frequent dips from appreciated comic relief to Jar Jar Binks-esque kid-friendly mascot territory, some jarring structural editing, and one too many conveniences to move the plot forward, the movie perfectly ended, and began, the saga of the apes, and respectfully retired Caesar, who we have come to deeply love through the films, in a surprisingly dignified way.
After, of course, he was played magnificently by Andy Serkis. Perhaps an odd way to end the review, I have been putting off talking about his performance only because it is hard to describe to those unfamiliar with how motion capture works. While many say things like Serkis is little more than a voice actor, the truth is that the CGI does less to improve his performance and actually provides a barrier through which he must, with overwhelming success, act. The raw emotion conveyed by Serkis is incredible, moving, and terrifying, stealing absolutely every scene and commanding reverence from both the audience and the characters. While he in no way is a saving grace or an anomaly, for this entire film is fantastically made and every actor performs admirably, his performance specifically is beyond Oscar-worthy, and, as it is what will surely stay with me the longest about this piece, it is only fitting that I leave you with the thought of his immense talent. Like much of this film’s immense beauty and fine craftsmanship, it must be seen to believe, and while it is not quite the perfect movie, it is by far the most gorgeously crafted franchise film ever delivered.