Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!
Charlton Heston's famous line from the original film in the series all but a memory at this point (aside from that Draco Malfoy-looking kid's reference to it in Rise of the Planet of the Apes), the Planet of the Apes franchise has come a long way from being a campy, classic '60s sci-fi action flick to now containing one of the best, most complete dramatic film trilogies of all time. War for the Planet of the Apes is the third and final film in the Matt Reeves-directed prequel series of movies chronicling the Rise, Dawn, and War of hyper-intelligent, genetically modified apes as they face off against their human counterparts, led by their wise, powerful, and awe-inspiring leader, Caesar.
War starts where Dawn leaves off; following the devastating aftermath of Koba's (he was the evil ape for those who can't or find it difficult to care to remember a fictional ape character's name) rise to power and brutal confrontation with the human survivor community, led by Gary Oldman's character, a highly lethal and well-trained militia to the north has received word of the apes' aggression and have mobilized to take out Caesar and all ape-kind that remain. What follows is both a militaristic and psychological war between Caesar, played by the incomparable Andy Serkis (Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, King Kong from King Kong (2005)), and the Colonel, played by Woody Harrelson (Detective Marty Hart from True Detective, Haymitch Abernathy from The Hunger Games series) as they both struggle for personal survival and that of their respective species.
What Was Good?
First off, let's start off the with the most obvious thing about this movie: it looks amazing! The special effects are state of the art and, arguably, some of the best use of CGI in a film I have ever seen. Every ape in War looks as real as any animal you might see in the wild or at the zoo. On top of that, with the use of "performance capture" technology, Caesar and the gang are given incredible emotional depth and characterization that might trick you into thinking these apes are actually highly sentient beings that broke big into the Hollywood scene with their tour-de-force acting prowess and make use of the Kraft services table on set in between takes. Do not be fooled! They are, in fact, human beings in silly gray leotards with white balls and head-rigged cameras who happen to be outstanding actors who combine their talents as actors with the special effects wizards to create the magic on-screen that we, as audience members, tend to take for granted. On a pure digital craftsmanship level, War for the Planet of the Apes is a masterpiece.
Next, I want to highlight the director of the film, Matt Reeves. In his own words, Reeves describes his film as "an ape war movie Biblical epic...and a revenge western" (here's the interview: SPOILER ALERT!!! DON'T WATCH UNTIL YOU'VE SEEN THE MOVIE!!!!!! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaWLT1hp1JU). That just about sums up the general plot of the movie, and it's undeniably thrilling from start to finish (with the exception of a 15 minute section about halfway or two-thirds of the way through the movie). I won't delve into each beat of the film because I don't want to spoil it for you in this review, but I will say that Reeves has such an intimate grasp of what this franchise is and knows how to highlight the strengths of this story and its characters. He understands that this story is truly about the apes themselves, and not just how they end up in a position where they've enslaved Charlton Heston in the 1968 film. The physical struggle of Caesar and his followers is expertly matched by the emotional and psychological struggle as they try to find their place in the world, especially in the face of the last ditch militaristic might of what is left of humanity. For the most part, Reeves sticks the landing on a very emotionally impactful and satisfying trilogy that happens to be an awesome ape-filled sci-fi franchise.
The film is carried by a multitude of fantastic performances, and yes, that primarily includes the ape performances. One of the newcomers to the franchise was Steve Zahn (Lenny Haise from That Thing You Do) as "Bad Ape," and his performance is the most unique of the franchise. Primarily the comic relief, Bad Ape actually has some engaging personality and some under-the-surface emotional baggage that allow the inevitable yucks to happen without the eye-rolling associated with the Jar Jar Binks of the world. He was a pleasant surprise in this movie. Woody Harrelson as "the Colonel" was an inspired choice for the villain of this movie, although he was unfortunately not given as much to do as I think he should have. That being said, his Amon Goeth-type presence is felt through out the film and is effective for the most part (he's certainly not as despicable as Amon Goeth from Schindler's List and, thus, not as good of a villain).
The real star of the movie, however, is none other than Andy Serkis as the titular character, Caesar. Never before has a CGI character evoked such raw emotion and dramatization for its audience. It may be a controversial stance amongst those in the business or even the general public, but I still believe that Serkis gave an Oscar-worthy performance in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. While I enjoyed that movie, and possibly even his performance in that movie, more than War, Serkis once again delivers a nuanced and multi-layered performance that, I believe, has a legitimate chance of generating Oscar buzz. People long believed that superhero movie performances could never earn the honor, and yet Heath Ledger did just that with his turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight in 2008. Andy Serkis is not only a masterclass actor; he is also a champion of the innovative Performance Capture technology and is a big reason people are starting to see it more as an alternate means of immersing an actor into a character, along the lines of digital makeup. With his skills as an actor matched with the breaking down of that barrier, I hope the Academy recognizes the incredible performance Andy Serkis gives in this movie by at least nominating him for Best Actor, because I sincerely believe he deserves it.
What Was Bad?
I absolutely hate to say it, but as great as this movie was on a technical level and even with regard to its performances and story, it just didn't quite measure up to my expectations or to the quality of the previous installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Both movies share the fact that they subverted assumed plot lines and took the movies in different directions than the trailers would have the audience believe. The difference is, for me, the direction that Dawn went was way better than I thought it would be. Rather than just being a straight forward misunderstood apes vs. evil humans conflict, Dawn contained a Hamlet-esque twist that resulted in an ape civil war and sported nuanced and complex character motivations on both the ape and human sides of the conflict. For this reason, as well as the state of the art effects, the beautiful execution from director Matt Reeves, and a bevy of other reasons I won't go into here, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of my favorite movies of all time.
Much like Dawn, War for the Planet of the Apes ends up going a completely different direction than originally expected. Unfortunately, the movie War promised to be was superior to the one we ended up getting. How do I know? Because the first 10 minutes showed a glorious glimpse of what War could have been, and I loved it. It's an all out war film, complete with guerilla warfare *holds in chuckles and gives self high five*, sweeping battle sequence shots, Zero Dark Thirty-level tension, and so much more that told me, "This could be one of the greatest war films of all-time, ape or no ape." Despite this tremendously strong start, the movie devolves into a revenge thriller that ends up taking more pages out of the Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape playbook than that of Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down, or even The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan has been known to compare the tone of his third Batman film to that of a war film, and it shows). The movie is ultimately still thrilling and super entertaining, but it left me a bit disappointed because the film did not live up to its title or the epic battle-filled conclusion it promised to be.
What Should Catholics Know?
While filled with some PG-13 blood and violence, War for the Planet of the Apes is a generally Catholic-friendly flick with some morally rich themes and concepts, if one can reconcile the fact that these themes and concepts are explored through the perspective of a hyper intelligent ape. It explores the obsessive and destructive nature of revenge, and shows that even if we feel justified in carrying it out, revenge is a disastrous road that results in the one carrying it out becoming as immoral as the one who has committed the seemingly unforgivable offense. It also shows that this revenge-seeking will not only do nothing to ease emotional pain, but will also bring about further torment and danger and harm to those we love who still depend on us to lead and nurture them.
It's also worth noting that Caesar, who is ultimately the hero and star of this rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy, bears similarities to several Biblical characters, bearing the wisdom of King Solomon, the compassion of King David, and the fearless leadership into the Promised Land of milk and honey of Moses. All of these strong character traits are carried over from the previous two films and are very much present in the third installment.
Should You See It?
Matt Reeves completes this incredible trilogy of films on an overall high note that concludes the epic story of Caesar and the Rise, Dawn and War for the Planet of the Apes. Although not really a war movie, War for the Planet of the Apes contains outstanding performances from its actors, led by the incredible Andy Serkis, and contains some of the best digital special effects of any movie I've ever seen. Thrilling and action-packed, yet morally challenging and emotionally gripping, War once again turns the Apes franchise into one of the most relevant and meaningful blockbuster franchises of our generation.
My judgment: 8.5/10
That's it for this review everybody! I hope you've enjoyed my take on the latest Apes movie. What did you think of Matt Reeves' final Apes film? Are there Catholic or moral themes in this movie you'd like me to discuss further in a podcast? Please comment below and let me know what you think!