Back in 2011, when the reboot, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, many braced for a flop of disastrous proportions. It would have been hard to blame anyone, given that the last time somebody tried to make a Planet of the Apes movie, it resulted in terrible mess, that still to this day is joked as being nearly unwatchable, and is argued as the beginning of the descent in Tim Burton’s career. To the surprise of many however, the reboot that has spawned this ongoing trilogy was quite good, and the impressive sequel, Dawn of The Planet Of The Apes, raised the stakes, which set the stage for the titular war, in War For The Planet Of The Apes.
The third film picks up two years after the last one ended, and the army faction that was teased to be coming for Caesar, the super advanced primate, and his family of advanced apes, has been warring with them ever since. The opening few scenes of this film, are as intense as anything seen in the series thus far, and give a real sense of the danger, which conveys what has been going on since the last film. These moments set up the tone of the film as a whole, and are reminiscent of Vietnam war films. The fighting in the jungle, and the knowledge that the enemy can come from anywhere, are things that have made the best movies set in that era stand out. The events that end up setting the film in motion are impactful, and given that the audience has spent so much time with the character of Caesar in previous films, gives an interesting context to his decision-making as a leader.
Unfortunately, the opening of the film is the most “war” that is presented. Maybe it is a matter of expectations, but given that the word war is in the title, there should have been a bit more fighting on this scale. There have been skirmishes in the previous films, with smaller battles taking place in both the first and second installments, but when the title implies war, there should be more battle sequences, mostly because they have a history in this series as being very good. The reason that there are not more, it would seem is because director Matt Reeves has chosen to showcase that not every battle in a war, is the fighting on the battlefield. The bulk of the film takes place as Caesar works to defy, and undermine the army leader, simply known as The Colonel, while working to free his followers from the Colonel’s prison labor camp. This film is very much about the struggle to survive as it is about winning a war, and what someone is willing to do for survival.
The best example of the type of movie this is, is Apocalypse Now, made incredibly obvious by a piece of graffiti reading, “Ape-Pocalypse now,” which served as both a nod, and a moment that may be too meta for its own good. The reason for this, is that while there are many parallels to that film, the film as a whole is not as good as that one, so drawing comparisons ruins the end result. That isn’t to say the film is bad, but once a film starts to mimic a classic in the genre, it becomes hard to stand on its own. Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of the Colonel is very much an homage to Marlon Brando’s similar role in Apocalypse Now, and while Harrelson is quite menacing, and overall a good character, he doesn’t reach that level, so it becomes more of a let down. This may not be the case for everybody, as those who may not be familiar with it, likely won’t be bothered by it, and others may appreciate the connection, without letting it impact their enjoyment.
Putting aside that aspect of the film’s story and execution, there is a lot to like here. Andy Serkis once again shines as the main character Caesar, and his motion capture work, in combination with the visual effects, make for an impressive character. Serkis plays Caesar as a much older in demeanor, than we have seen previously. There is less optimism in his outlook, as the war has waged much longer than he wants, since his objective has always been to have the apes be left alone. The character is also still haunted by the events of Dawn, and has nightmares and vision of the villainous Koba from that film. The way in which facial expressions capture the fear that Caesar is more like Koba than he wishes to believe, are a credit to Serkis’ performance. As previously stated, Woody Harrelson is a good villain for this film to have, because while his motivations for survival makes sense, his actions to see to that survival are harsh, and maniacal. The film dictates that you hate this man, and that he is pure evil, but Harrelson does such a good job conveying his point of view, that there is a hint of sympathy that develops, making for a more well-rounded character. The film is all about these two characters, and while others are present, and add to the proceedings, these are the only two that matter, and the film is better for it.
Once again, Matt Reeves has taken this established franchise, and creating a new film that is both enjoyable and thought-provoking. The visual effects continue to impress, and the motion capture for the apes is probably the best in the series, which makes sense given how the technology has advanced through the years. The film is best at the beginning and end, but does drag a bit in the middle, mostly due to the addition of an all too zany comedic relief Ape, which is a big detriment. The best aspects in this series have been the tension, and having a normally intense film franchise broken up with near slapstick humor, feels incredibly off. This, coupled with the all too close resemblance to Apocalypse Now, keeps this film from being the best it possibly could, but what it is, is still worthy of the trilogy, and still a good film overall.