VOD film review: War for the Planet of the Apes
Ivan Radford | On 30, Dec 2017
Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn
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“We are not savages. Apes fight only to survive.” That’s Caesar (Serkis) in War for the Planet of the Apes, the epic third entry in what has emerged as a powerful, accomplished and jaw-dropping franchise. With War, this reboot of the classic series arguably ranks alongside Star Wars as one of the best trilogies in modern sci-fi.
Why? Because it stands by Caesar’s philosophy: apes aren’t the savages in these tales, but the heroes. It’s the humans who are the savages. And that decision to frame the whole story from the apes’ perspective has given this trio of films a heart that’s all its own. If Dawn of the Planet of the Apes felt like a film made by apes, War for the Planet of the Apes feels like ape cinema has matured over several decades to produce its very own Citizen Kane.
What began with the story of an ape outgrowing the cruelty of humans, and then of apes choosing their path as a civilisation, has come full circle, as the fully-fledged ape society clashes with the remnants of humanity fighting their rise. Over the years, Caesar has become a legend, an icon for the animals – and yet that weight is already hanging heavy on him, after he fought Koba to avoid bloodshed, but finds himself plunged into further loss and grief anyway.
The only weakness of the Apes films has been its lack of a consistent human counterpart, with each one being killed off or written out with each new entry. The sheer strength of the performances alone, though, has stopped that concern from lingering, and War is no exception. It’s only fitting that Caesar should find himself opposed by a man of equally mythic status: The Colonel, a fanatical leader with a vendetta against apes and the virus they have spread. Woody Harrelson plays him with a righteous conviction that’s intimidating and unpredictable – it’s a treat just to see him go face-to-face with Caesar, a noble creature fuelled by revenge for a nocturnal strike upon his village. The scale of what follows is Biblical in ambition as well as execution.
But it’s not just a battle: this is a clash of ideas and beliefs that is rooted in philosophy and personal emotion (both Caesar and The Colonel have sad backstories that unfold between their stand-offs, with Koba returning to haunt our protagonist). Director Matt Reeves finds time in The Colonel’s hellish prison camp to expand that rich vein of tragedy and pathos, even as he ramps up the spectacle – a balance that’s beautifully struck by Steve Zahn as a tiny ape traumatised by the conflict, and Amiah Miller as Nova, a mute orphan also found abandoned, whom is befriended by Maurice (the always-superb Karin Konoval).
Nova is the soul of what emerges as a fable about overcoming differences, tolerance, finding mutual language, and embracing evolution – while the Colonel tries to build a wall that would put Donald Trump to shame, Nova is a quiet bridge to the original Apes movies. Front and centre, though, is Andy Serkis, whose poignant, nuanced and hugely expressive turn as Caesar deserves to be a serious contender this awards season.
The result is a surprisingly low-key climax to a grand finale, a heartfelt blockbuster that puts many blockbusters to shame with pure sentiment alone. Perhaps more of them should feature apes, you think. And then you remember that War for the Planet of the Apes doesn’t have any either: so confident and seamless have this trilogy’s visual effects become that it never once registers that these aren’t real animals acting on-screen, until the end credits featuring hordes of motion capture wizards begin to roll. That’s the ultimate compliment that can be paid to this thrilling, tender action flick, which rounds off a franchise that that is so frequently jaw-dropping you don’t even notice that your jaw has been on the floor for two hours.