War for the Planet of the Apes

War is a terrific yet atypical blockbuster and a fitting swansong to the Apes trilogy.

I made a bold statement while reviewing 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes by calling that film the evolution of cinema. And before that I called 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes a ground breaking vehicle in cinematic storytelling. Yet both films asked the same question – will xenophobia lead to the destruction of humanity? In fact, this very question was initiated as a social metaphor in the 1968 original starring Charlton Heston. Now 50 years down the line, returning director Matt Reeves has the answer, and it’s a fact we’ve known since the beginning of civilization.

Touted as the finale to an epic trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes is not your typical tent pole summer film. But it’s all about computer generated apes, you say; Apes that talk in a setup that’s all implausible science-fiction. Yes, and so are superhero films. And while we were sheepishly distracted by wondering which superhero character will get his/her own sequel, the Apes franchise was shaping out to be a rare Hollywood triumph in more ways than initially perceived. While Rise was a runaway hit in 2011, its story was about humanity’s unintended conflict with a new race of super intelligent apes. Dawn in 2014 intensified that conflict before concluding that however hateful humans can be, peace is always an option. That little chance of peace is thrown out the window with War for the Planet of the Apes. Thus begins a visually stunning effects driven Hollywood blockbuster, and it doesn’t get any better than this.

Thanks to the breathtaking motion performance technology, anyone watching this film will have no doubt that the apes in this film are anything but computer generated creatures. The visuals are that good, if not the best in the franchise. Yet at the core is a strong emotional tug that transcends general expectations of a blockbuster this big. Take for instance that the terrific yet intense action scenes in this film are dispensed with controlled measure in favour of a richer and layered complexity in the storytelling. While it would have been all too easy to place apes on one side and humans on the other and light a fuse in between, Reeves concludes this trilogy with a poignant yet prophetic and equally poetic ode to humanity’s self-inflected destruction. And personifying this dark heart of mankind is Woody Harrelson as a Colonel who has abandoned his ranks to exterminate apes led by our beloved Caesar.  That very line, in a film pitting humans versus apes is exactly how the audience will react by rooting for another species instead of our own.

Harrelson’s Colonel (with more than enough homage to Marlon Brando’s Col Kurtz in the still haunting Apocalypse Now) is a scary portrayal of just how ruthlessly pathological humans can be in endangering another species, or for that matter, another race of humans. While that is already known, the greatest achievement in War for the Planet of the Apes is in the innumerable social allegories that lead up to the climactic Caesar Vs Colonel showdown. It’s worth the wait and the wait is not plagued with the usual bloating of a blockbuster pushing past two hours. Yet even as the story goes from grim to bleak, Steve Zhan as a chimp calling himself ‘Bad Ape’ injects some much needed humour. But if there is anyone who deserves top credit for this film (and the previous two), it is none other than Andy Serkis in another outstanding delivery as Caesar. No matter however accomplished, not many actors today can do what Serkis does, which is nothing short of breathing life into a digitally rendered character and then making you shed a tear over that character. While it’s still a long shot in getting an Academy Award nomination for a motion capture role, what Serkis has achieved is not only colossal for this film but also for the future of cinema. That being said and irrespective of how well this film does during awards season, Serkis along with Reeves have crafted one of the most memorable films of the year.  And if this is the series swansong, it is also one of the most heartbreaking and fully accomplished blockbusters of the year. All hail Caesar!

Rating: ★★★★½

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.