The Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy comes to a satisfying if not note-perfect end in War for the Planet of the Apes, another spectacular summer blockbuster treat in a series that has defied expectations since the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes back in 2011.
War carries on the tale of Caesar (played in motion capture by Andy Serkis), the leader of a community of super-intelligent apes living in the forests of northern California. With conflict between the apes and the human survivors of a deadly epidemic having broken out in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, War sees Caesar staging a guerrilla (and gorilla) struggle against the humans while desperately seeking a safe haven for his people.
Caesar has always been a Moses-figure in the Apes trilogy, and War makes the most explicit references yet to the Book of Exodus. But it’s also possible to see in this human-ape conflict, with its rifle-wielding soldiers up against tribal apes on horseback armed with bows and spears, comparisons with the Native American wars as American settlers pushed west in the 18th and 19th centuries (although the anti-ape graffiti scrawled onto the soldiers’ helmets is straight out of Full Metal Jacket).
But despite the title, this isn’t really a war movie. Instead for much of the film War plays more like a western, a chimp-starring rethread of The Outlaw Josey Wales. Caesar here takes the Clint Eastwood role, as he leads a small band of followers into the mountains to seek revenge on a human military commander (Woody Harrelson) after a particularly brutal raid on the apes’ homestead.
It’s this section – surprisingly meditative and light on action for a big-budget blockbuster – that is the film’s strongest. Wordless for large stretches (the apes communicate mostly through sign language) it offers up an intriguing character study. As the journey goes on Caesar, previously a reluctant warrior who preferred diplomacy to bloodshed, increasingly becomes consumed with his quest, to the consternation of his lieutenants, led by the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval). It’s rare for a summer blockbuster to delve so deeply into the psyche of its protagonist, something which makes Caesar’s complexity all the more welcome.
If only the human antagonists were as interesting, for as a result of their shallowness the film’s final act, set in a sort of ape concentration camp, is somewhat less successful. Whereas Dawn offered up a surprising amount of nuance with its inter-species relationships, with attempts by both human and ape moderates to make peace were repeatedly thwarted by bad blood and extremism on both sides, there’s no doubt here as to whose side we’re meant to be on. The humans (with the sole exception of an angelic little mute girl, played by Amiah Miller, whom the apes pick up along the way) are one-note baddies. Even the normally reliable Harrelson gives a cartoonishly over-the-top Kurtz impression as the Colonel (it is a sign of how weakly fleshed out the character is that we never learn his real name) that does the film no favours.
More interesting are the traitorous apes who serve as scouts and guards in the Colonel’s army in return for being spared the destruction of Caesar’s community, but despite significant build-up this simian sonderkommando sub-plot doesn’t lead anywhere other than a fairly trite conclusion.
Still, what this final act lacks in true artistry it makes up for in thrills and spills. Director Matt Reeves (who also directed Dawn) stages the action scenes with style, not least during a scene set in darkened tunnels lit only by the green laser-scopes of the soldiers. It’s a consistently exciting film and as a result, despite being the longest of the Apes films, War rarely drags.
The real praise though belongs to both Serkis, who continues to be the best motion-capture actor around, and Weta Studios, the effects house behind War‘s bleeding edge CGI. Even in a world where we take mega-budget special effects for granted, their apes are stunning creations: so fully-realised, so intricately animated, that they look almost human. You can practically see Serkis in every twitch of Caesar’s haunted face, and the ability of the actors to make themselves felt even through layers of digital overlay goes a long way to making you really care about what happens to these apes. For though Serkis yet again steals the show, he’s not the only ape actor to make an impression here, and Steve Zahn is a particularly enjoyable presence as a klutzy chimp who provides this otherwise relentlessly grim film with some comic relief.
Rare is it that prequel films surpass the original, but if War isn’t quite the revelation the superb Dawn was, it provides a surprisingly effective finale to one of the most unexpectedly thrilling blockbuster series of the new millennium. It’s a pop-corn film that picks in as much heart and intelligence as it does explosions. Would that there were more movies like it.