The third movie is always a difficult beast. How to cap off a trilogy? Finalise the narrative? Bring the character’s arc full circle? It’s a challenging prospect and has many a great filmmaker stumped without success: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, all fell short of the feats achieved by their predecessors. Was this down to over-ambition? Loss of interest in the project? Increased studio control? Bad luck?
Whatever the case, as a huge fan of this revamped Planet of the Apes franchise, I was concerned about how this conclusion would play out. Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a surprising hit with a great emotional payoff, and Matt Reeves’ follow-up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes packed itself with added nuance and character depth to truly set the stage for a finale that would cement this trilogy’s legacy as one of the few greats. Was it too much to ask that Reeves avoided the thrice-is-never-nice curse and produced something in a similar vein to those that came before?
Well, I am gratified in assuring you that Reeves has accomplished that rare gift of a great trilogy. War for the Planet of the Apes is a decisive finale that doesn’t indulge in gratuitous spectacle, instead opting for a narrative sucker punch that gives us time with the characters we’ve grown to love, as well as determining on unconventionally thought-provoking and at times overwhelming subject matter.
To fashion a foundation of said narrative, this film follows two years on from the aforementioned Dawn. After the disastrous ape revolution that sought to eliminate any human threats, led by disturbed agitator and one-time ally Koba (Toby Kebbell), ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) is faced with the imminent threat of war from those looking to strike back. This threat, led by the mentally volatile yet ideologically conservative Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), continues to push against Caesar and his people, resulting in a tragedy that ultimately pushes our protagonist to the limit, as he charges into his own rage-driven quest of revenge against those responsible.
What follows is a poignant, melancholic yet hopeful film that heads into narrative regions rarely explored in many contemporary spectacles. Forget the third act effects orgies that bookend almost all of the high-budget blockbusters that have haphazardly hurtled onto our screens in recent years. Instead, director Matt Reeves treasures the smaller moments, using the film camera as a microscope in order to glance into the personal traumas and quandaries of the characters. Sure, it does keep to its title at times: the opening sequence is a beautifully choreographed assault on a forest fortress, paced well and affecting in its depiction of wartime brutality. And yet these scenes are fleeting and do not define the film’s overall effect.
Instead, what makes War such a successful follow-up is how it continues to build upon the narrative tapestry knitted together over the last two films, demonstrating how Caesar and co. have changed over the course of time due to being driven to emotional extremes; their rational grasp of right and wrong slowly beginning to slip away as the horror of war sets in. As this series’ story has bared quite an overt similarity to that of Moses leading the Israelite slaves to freedom, so this final point can be compared to the moment where Moses breaks the Commandments: he forgets the code he lived by and established for his race, all arising from his betrayal of the law ‘Ape shall not kill Ape’ in his defeat of Koba in Dawn. What this leads into is a tale of insatiable, almost primal desire for vengeance, a parable for many a war that has been fought over the years, most notably that of the Vietnam war as the film makes quite apparent in its manifest references to Coppola’s magnum opus, Apocalypse Now (there’s even a snippet of graffiti that reads ‘Ape-ocalypse Now’). In relation to Kong: Skull Island, another ape-related blockbuster which this year referenced the Vietnam war, War for the Planet of the Apes plays it far more effectively in informing the characters, rather than acting as window dressing for what was a rather shallow monster flick.
What I’m getting at is that the War for the Planet of the Apes exhibits more of a personal understanding of what this war means for those involved. It is a study of the interior rather than the exterior, and thus shares a genetic code with David Lean’s The Bridge On the River Kwai. Many a critic has compared Reeves’ filmmaking style to that of Lean, but I think it is also in its dedication to the psychology of its characters that grants it the worthy comparison. Like Alec Guinness’ Lt. Col. Nicholson from that film, Caesar’s values are thrown into a confused stasis, leading him isolated as he adopts a singular vision to achieve a purely personal goal, at times to the expense of others but also to their benefit as a collective. It’s a complex work that I think should be admired, and is not for the faint-hearted.
This being said, none of this personal struggle could translate to the audience without the capability of a phenomenal actor. We have this in the form of Andy Serkis: to accentuate this, I vehemently affirm that Serkis is one of the finest screen actors in the history of the medium. Many actors deliver strong performances, but like De Niro, Day-Lewis and even Chaplin, Serkis gives himself physically and emotionally to every role he performs. And now, Serkis has also achieved that rare thing of providing an arc that lasts over a lifetime. We have lived with Caesar in his childhood, to his youthful, almost utopian endeavour to relieve his kind of the shackles of their captivity, to now, hitting his adulthood, faced with the opaque questions of his existence and the human spirit. None of this would matter so vigorously if it did not have such an emotive and committed actor such as Serkis behind the narrative mask of the revolutionary motion-capture work of Weta.
Woody Harrelson and Steve Zahn also deliver wonderful performances, with two roles that could have made or broken the tonal coherence. Harrelson, playing an unlikeable Kurtz-esque Colonel, maddened by the possibility of extinction, really shines as a menacing presence. There is a personal motive, but it is overshadowed by the cult of personality that drives the human army: he is symbolic of many a dictator from history, yet we are allowed prized and private access past that façade. Zahn, acting as a stray primate self-named Bad Ape, also has the difficult role of playing the comedic levity to a film that is quite brutal throughout. This could have suffered from the Jar-Jar Binks effect, but Zahn offers a delicate touch and never overstays his welcome: his moments not only produced laughs, but even a sigh of relief from the audience, who could be seen to writhe and gasp at some of the film’s more emotionally exhausting moments.
Finally, there must be praise saved for the unique and memorable score by Michael Giacchino. A composer who has demonstrated his abilities to tap into a film’s DNA with music that evokes strong sentiment (Up) and operatic excitement (Star Trek Into Darkness), Giacchino brings a score that arouses reminiscence of Jerry Goldsmith’s classically creepy music for the original Planet of the Apes. In terms of narrative, this is effective as War seeks to seep into the mythology of the original, but just in terms of tone, it exerts a horror in certain sequences yet hopefulness in others, and is vital in enhancing tone and characterisation within the quieter moments.
Overall, War for the Planet of the Apes is an unconventional epic, one that doesn’t embrace the formulaic conclusive spectacle, but takes epic to represent the spectrum of sensations that the characters’ experience throughout the film. Through its underlining commentary on the psychology of war, to its cathartic culmination of Caesar’s entire arc as brought to life by Andy Serkis, and in its technical brilliance in augmenting the overall sentiment of the experience, Reeves’ film is a fitting conclusion to that rare cinematic gift: a great trilogy.
All that said and done, Serkis must, and I mean must, finally receive that long overdue Oscar. Whether this is in the Best Actor category or a Special Achievement award for his revolutionary work, please, let’s finally acknowledge this man’s underappreciated talents in an industry that is a little starved of innovation at the moment.