When Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out back in 2011, we had no idea of the emotionally powerful trilogy that would follow. And yet here we are capping a successful and satisfying end to Caesar’s story. How did Matt Reeves transform a story mid-flight into a series that could go down a one of the best in film history? Check out my explanation below…
A Slight Misnomer
If you’re expecting a full onslaught between apes and humans, you’re in the wrong place (despite what the title and opening narration tells you). To be fair, with the way Dawn ended, you could be forgiven for thinking a full on battle was the next course of action. However, Matt Reeve’s second time running the POTA franchise serves to continue the intricate approach he started with in Dawn.
When War starts, Caesar is still as brilliant and compassionate as we saw him in Rises and Dawn, but the toil of battle has clearly started to wear on him. It’s at this moment we are introduced to Woody Harrelson’s character, known only as The Colonel, who’s assault on the ape’s compound takes Caesar’s last bit of hope. This pushes Caesar to places he had fiercely fought away from before and serves as the driver for the entire film. As stated before, this doesn’t lead to some climatic battle like the trailers and TV spots allude to. The genius of the film shines through by having a more complex and rich conflict. Reeves uses the emotional threads from two previous movies to put Caesar at odds with his Moses-like protector/leader identity by consuming him with revenge. As simple as that may seem, it’s powerful for multiple reasons.
First, this is probably the only time you as a audience member will fully understand Caesar’s emotion and yet have reservations or completely disagree with his decisions. Rather than lifting our heroic leader to higher heights, we are left wondering what’s left of the ape we’ve grown to love and admire the past two films. Secondly, we get to see him parallel with Koba’s pain and betrayal, as he haunts Caesar’s dreams. Koba’s death weighs heavily on Caesar as he nears closer to his goal and makes him question if he’s grown cold himself. It works beautifully as Caesar processes his guilt while trying to also internally justify his mission. Third, it makes Caesar stand out from a batch of bland Hollywood protagonists who feel no different by the third movie than when they started. It takes some guts to try this much development and heartache with a series lead this far into a franchise.
Andy Serkis Shines
Serkis has been the motion capture king for the last decade and his work in the Apes series may be his finest yet. It doesn’t hurt that the CGI has continued to improve over each iteration making this entry easily the most life-like and engaging. However, it wouldn’t work without the strong performance of Serkis and he delivers the entire time. Caesar’s rage, pain, and vulnerability all exude through the face of Andy Serkis. Every loss and fight Caesar’s encounters is worn on him, piling up to a powerful finale that communicates exactly how far he has fallen. If you somehow walk away not affected by this performance, I would implore you to go back and watch it again. Serkis had already set the standard for the way CGI characters should look, feel, and act through his body of work and now War has cemented it.
Visual Storytelling At It’s Best
Can you remember the last film that pulled on your heart strings without a ton of dialogue? For me, the recent example is Disney’s Up, where you get an entire prologue set to music and visual, without a single line. Despite the lack of words, audiences everywhere were weeping before the film had actually kicked into gear. War is full of those moments; While there isn’t a single one with the impact of Up, the total package hits you in the gut by the end.
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The sign language communication established in the first two films displays just as strongly here. We are also treated to another layer of their communication with the addition of Nova, a young mute girl, (and acts as a nod and fan service to the original film /book). As she learns to communicate with the apes in their second tongue, Nova slows becomes the only barometer to gauge how far Caesar has fallen. From the way he looks at her or interacts with her, sometimes compassionately and other times rather coldly, we can see whether Caesar will stay true to the ape we’ve known or turn into something closely resembling Koba. That all of this can be communicated through sight is a testament to how thoroughly developed and impactful the on-screen visuals are.
Matt Reeves: The Up and Comer
If War was expected to devolve into a CGI spectacle of human vs apes brawl, no one told Matt Reeves. Penning the script with writer Mark Bomback, Reeves continues the strong work he started in Dawn, crafting a suitable end to Caesar’s story. As you watch War, you may be surprised to learn that Reeves only has 5 director film credits to his name, including this one. While he spent a considerable amount of time working in television (co-created Felicity with director J.J. Abrams), he didn’t have a ton of major film experience. His shot selection and pacing however have the hallmarks of a disciplined and seasoned director. If you’ve hated the frantic feel of many modern movies, you will experience none of that here. Shots linger the appropriate amount, there’s few cuts as possible to establish action, fights were clearly choreographed with a flow in mind. Even if you can’t articulate these things as a viewer, you feel and notice them when they are done well. There’s a great conversation scene between Caesar and Steve Zahn’s character, Bad Ape, where the characters are obstructed in the field of view to heighten the sense of distance, loneliness, and pain both of them have experienced. That’s the kind of attention to detail that will make you really excited to see what Reeves does next.
Giacchino Channels Morricone
The unsung hero of several Hollywood blockbusters the past 5 years has been Michael Giacchino. His music has stood out among the overabundant, bland group of musical selections. While I could talk in great length about the disconnect between directors and composers the past decade, Giacchino has been able to avoid that decay for the most part. He’s crafted some of his best work with War and should certainly get Oscar recognition. In all honesty, I haven’t heard a score tied so closely to the film in a long time. “The Posse Polonaise” track has to be one of the best nods to Ennio Morricone I’ve ever heard. Morricone, famous for his work on Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy, created amazing scene tracks but also effective transition pieces to tie them together. Here, Giacchino’s “Posse” feels like every western bad guy / travel montage woven into a single song for great effect.
While the “Ending Credits” song below gives you an idea of the different cues used in the film, the best example are actually three songs at the end of the second act/start of the third act: “Apes Strong Together”, “A Tide in the Affair of Apes”, and “Planet of the Escapees”. While they are pretty powerful listening on their own, in-context of the film, they gain a greater emotional weight and you can find yourself getting a bit weepy eyed on repeat hearing.
Are There Any Negatives?
I’ve wanted to highlight the Colonel as possibly being a weak arc, but honestly Harrelson does exactly what he’s supposed to. He serves to push Caesar to places he’s never gone before. This final film really works on seeing how Caesar continues to lead when he’s lost so much, confronting Koba’s ghost, and relearning to forgive with various degrees of success. I loved so much of the direction, the pacing, and this film’s and series resolution. I’m sure I could find something to nitpick, but there’s simply not enough to really highlight. I might have made a few adjustments to the finale or gave the human characters a bit more to do. But then you’re losing time with the apes and that trade-off could have hurt the overall experience.
I wasn’t expecting to get blown away by War when I initially sat down for my screening. I loved Dawn, but there was nothing in the promotional materials that encouraged me that Fox was going to let Matt Reeves continue this story the right way. In this case, I love being wrong because they allowed him to keep the reins creatively and with his directorial presence. The result is a film that should easily contend for a best picture nod if that not easily win it. If War is still playing near you, you owe it to yourself to give this one a chance and watch a film that shows us how to properly end a trilogy.
War for the Planet of the Apes: 9.5 out of 10