Poor old Caesar. Everyone’s favourite digitally-rendered chimp is back, for the third instalment of the bigger, better, darker Planet of the Apes reboot, and he’s had a hard old time since his humble beginnings hanging out in James Franco’s attic. When we’re introduced to him in Matt Reeves’ sequel to Rise and Dawn, he’s like a different ape: grizzled, war-weathered, perpetually scowling. And the film itself feels miles away from its 2011 origin; the series has matured and grown in complexity in the course of its evolution, and this has allowed the filmmakers to fully explore the depths of Caesar’s narrative arc.
Now, having led an uprising and forced into hiding by the U.S. military, almost all of Caesar’s faith in mankind has been quashed. Almost. He continues his solemn appeal for peace by sending message after message to the leader of the opposition – a merciless Colonel played by Woody Harrelson – but his pleas fall on deaf, uncaring ears. If you thought humans were brutal and cold-blooded in the first two films, you ain’t seen nothing yet; in the world of War, we’re fully on the side of the apes, with the whole story told from their perspective and much less nuance given to the non-simian characters.
The writers perhaps realised this, and smartly decided to incorporate a new character – a little girl – to give us a much-needed glimmer of light and innocence in human form (and also a neat segue into the next film in the series, as the name eventually bestowed upon the girl links her to the 1968 original). Her innocence is juxtaposed with Caesar’s torment, as he goes on a quest for vengeance after a tragic loss he incurs at the hands of the Colonel. It’s in this third instalment that Caesar really plumbs the depths of his darkness and Andy Serkis delivers another excellent performance in the motion-capture suit, his eyes and expressions rendered exquisitely and giving the film so much of its emotional weight.
The mastery of the visual effects in War builds on and surpasses the work of the previous two films, and Reeves’ direction blends together the vast snowy landscapes and digital imagery seamlessly. At no point is the CGI distracting or overbearing; a gorgeous opening sequence pulls us into this world and the amount of work that has been poured into creating it means that it couldn’t be any more convincing throughout. What’s most impressive is that the majority of the scenes between ape characters are dialogue-free, relying on sign language and subtitles to communicate what is taking place. You’d think that this would get confusing or tiring for the viewer, but thanks to Reeves’ confidence in the effects and bold direction, these scenes are effortlessly engaging.
As the tension and action builds, not a moment of the nearly two and a half hour runtime of War feels superfluous, and the film is very well paced and edited – particularly in its third act. There are, however, a few areas of weakness (or perhaps laziness) in the screenplay: its story is strewn with ‘convenient’ plot points written in to simply get our characters from one place to another, or abruptly resolve a complication. This sounds like me nit-picking, but contrived plot points are always a needless distraction from the story, and there is one right at the end of the film that was just about silly enough to catapult me right out of the theatre (a deus ex machina sent by Mother Nature herself).
War for the Planet of the Apes is a spectacular, thoughtful and morally complex blockbuster, and acts as a perfect ending to Caesar’s story. Although its script occasionally verges on formulaic, this doesn’t detract from the film’s emotional weight and profound tone. Its pioneering CG effects and superb motion-capture performances (aided by Reeves’ impressive direction) beg to be viewed on the big screen, so if you can, go and watch this in the cinema. It proves that blockbusters can be dark and intelligent, with deep characters; whilst still providing the thrills of a big, escapist adventure.
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