Editor’s note: This review contains very mild plot references but will by no means ruin the film for you. Quite the contrary, in fact; we’re trying to tease it for those who have not yet seen it.
The Planet of the Apes franchise has been active since the ‘60s and you’d think that after so many years its message would weaken, yet as Matt Reeves concludes the recent reboot trilogy with War for the Planet of the Apes, it appears there is still plenty of life in the tale of Ape vs. Man.
Picking up two years after the conclusion of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s apparent from the get-go that the story is at its darkest. The U.S military have been alerted to the presence of the Ape stronghold led by the elusive Caesar (Andy Serkis.) Increasingly weary after his interactions with humanity, he must lead the Apes in a final battle against a rogue battalion headed by The Colonel, a tyrant with his own hidden agenda, brilliantly and villainously portrayed by Woody Harrelson.
War permeates every aspect of this film – the constant struggle of man against nature showing the darker side of humanity. From its opening credits the viewer is thrown into the midst of a forest-gone-wild that acts as home to the Apes. With the society in disrepair following the events of the previous two films, director Matt Reeves has created the ideal habitat for a cultural other. The hyper-intelligent Apes have built a society from the ashes of our own, only for man to attempt to claw their way back in with brute force. Several opening shots reflect the tone and atmosphere found in many Vietnam-inspired classics – Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket to name a couple.
The story of War for the Planet of the Apes feels inherently familiar, yet the ground it retreads doesn’t feel repetitive or like a shallow simulation. At its heart, a tale of revenge is told – one that will most certainly lead to death, yet this is what the trilogy has been building up to. The process of watching the oppressed lab experiments become leaders in a dismantled civilization is one plagued with suffering amongst success, so as this chapter in the franchise draws to a close, the stakes are at their highest. To protect the undoing of his progress and sacrifice, Caesar must challenge his perceptions of morality in a journey that leads him away from comfort and into the dangers of totalitarian terror.
Harrelson shines in the film, although this is partly due to his minimal screen time. The sparing use of The Colonel has the effect of making him a bogeyman within the narrative – an all-seeing, all-hearing force that demonstrates his power through his elite task force, Alpha-Omega, and their team of “donkeys,” – Apes that have succumbed to his influence. The binary opposition of friend and foe is integral to the film’s narrative and Reeves plays upon this to full effect in delivering sides that are equally redeemable upon close inspection. The line between man and monkey has been blurred.
The technology utilized within this epic piece of cinema is also worthy of praise. The Planet of the Apes films have always pushed the boundaries of special effects – from the campy yet startling use of silicone appliances in the original series to the pioneering advance in motion capture technology that the rebooted trilogy has incorporated. Weta Digital, the team behind the visual effects of The Lord of The Rings series, is responsible for the motion capture and animation used for the Apes in this reboot trilogy, and with the release of the final installment, they have reached their crowning achievement. With characters brought to life by a varied and exceptionally talented cast including motion capture legend Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell of Warcraft, and star of the stage Karin Konoval – paired with the visual effects work of Weta Digital – these actors are able to transcend the limitations of the human form to truly embody their roles whilst still capturing an essence of humanity that won’t be found in many other films this summer. The brilliance of the digital effects on offer doesn’t detract from the performances on show, instead merging wonderfully with the movements and facial details of the cast to demonstrate the perfectly imperfect subtleties of non-digitized acting.
An exceedingly strong end to a rebooted trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes is not only the pinnacle of motion capture performance, but also an excellent tale of revenge in a time of political instability.
by Benjamin Smart
War for the Planet of the Apes will be showing at the Gulbenkian from this Saturday 19th – Wednesday 23rd August 2017