Simian Success, or Weird Monkey Movie?

Jonnie Barrow argues the latest Planet of the Apes installment is the crowning glory of the franchise

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Source: flickr

Why do people so rarely talk about how great the rebooted Planet of the Apes movies are? Rise and Dawn are two of the greatest, intelligently made blockbusters of recent times. Laymen and critics alike write them off as being ‘weird monkey movies’, but no film series so consistently combines earnest, character-driven drama with incredible spectacle quite like these modern day classics of the sci-fi genre. Do not underestimate the following statement: War for the Planet of the Apes is one of the best films of the year, and one of the best conclusions to one of the greatest cinematic trilogies in recent memory.

This review will make a lot less sense if you haven’t seen the other Apes movies in this series, so go back and watch those if you haven’t already. Seriously, they are brilliant. After Koba incited war between the apes and the humans in the last time out, Caesar finds himself here dealing with the fallout of a conflict he didn’t ask for, and finding out the far-reaching consequences every aspect of this conflict has on him and those he loves.

The trailers for this movie show an awful lot of propulsive, large-scale action sequences, and make it look like this film is going to be an out-and-out action thriller. While such sequences are certainly enormous and incredible, they’re not really the main focus of the movie. This is less a war movie than it is a prisoner-of-war movie, with most of the action in the second and third acts of the movie taking place in a monkey POW camp under the command of a brilliantly antagonistic Woody Harrelson as ‘The Colonel’. These sections are eerily reminiscent of The Bridge On The River Kwai, as Caesar’s confrontations with The Colonel crackle with an intensity that belies the fact that Andy Serkis, giving the performance of his career, is actually wearing a funky grey leotard.

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The sombre, self-serious tone of the film would be somewhat alleviated without the incredible motion-capture techniques and CGI that turns these spandex-wearing actors into genuinely photo-realistic, emotionally convincing apes who carry the narrative. When Caesar emotes, you can see Andy Serkis in the performance; the apes never feel anything less than completely present and convincing. It’s astonishing how far this technology has come even since the first Apes film 6 years ago, and it’s somehow both enormously impressive within the film itself, while never distracting from the story.

The way the filmmakers revel in the moral complexities of war is what makes War for the Planet of the Apes so compelling. Caesar is a morally complex character, trying to find the right responses to impossible situations, and attempting to act virtuously even when motivated by guilt and revenge. Serkis’s performance is stellar, and the scenes he shares with Harrelson are of particular note, especially given that The Colonel is driven by a sympathetic backstory to some abhorrent actions. Elsewhere, Steve Zahn’s comic character ‘Bad Ape’ provides welcome relief from the almost overwhelming bleak intensity of the rest of the movie.

Trying to find flaws in this film is actually rather difficult; the only noticeable issue is Michael Giacchino’s score, which is mostly haunting and tense, but in a couple of places is overbearingly grim. Otherwise, everything from the writing to the performances, from the camerawork to the editing, is very clearly a product of a cohesive creative vision. After his incredible work on Dawn, director Matt Reeves has once again produced a stunning piece of cinema, managing to maintain a simmering intensity from the very first frame to the very final heartbreaking shot. His upcoming take on The Barman (a film with less monkey and more man, and unrelated to this franchise) promises to be well worth watching.

This is the third entry this trilogy deserved: equal parts exciting, heartbreaking, mesmerising and thought-provoking. It deserves your attention, it commands your respect, and it’ll stay with you long after the lights have come up.