2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Andy Serkis, Woody Herrilson | directed by Matt Reeves | 2hrs 20mins |
Studio Pitch: Ape-ocalypse Wow!
Who could have guessed that when that bizarre Rise of the Planet of the Apes trailer came out in 2011 that it would have been the beginning of one of the most successful, thrilling and deliciously satisfying movie franchises of its decade. While the world these movies create is rich enough to launch a franchise of cynical studio spinoffs (The Apes-Universe), War for the Planet of the Apes brings this Caesar trilogy to a respectful and spectacular close on director Matt Reeves’ terms. I loved every second of it, from the opening Full Metal Jacket style shots of army helmets with phrases like Monkey Killer painted on it to its cheer-the-heroes climax. These movies give the phrase “reboot” a good name.
This trilogy has always excelled at the required balancing act, taking seriously a concept that very easily could have fallen off the rails into Congo level camp. The movies (Rise directed by Rupert Graves, taken over by Reeves in Dawn) tip-toe around both tonal minefields and easier directions this story could have taken. A lesser production would have ended this series with humans and apes charging at each other in the kind of battle we’ve seen in just about every movie since Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland reboot. It would have had a very simple good vs. evil message about how humans are evil and destroying the environment. War subverts all of that for a more complex story. A story that hangs all of its emotional weight in our relationship with a CGI monkey and has him carry the arc of the film.
War like Rise and Dawn’s best moments are when it milks the tension of the tenuous peace between the human and ape communities. The humans clinging to the last bits of their society and the apes forming their own, the environment is a tinderbox where each misunderstanding or fearful action marches them a step closer to war for the species. Each side has its heroes and villains, in War the ape posse Caesar forms to scout out the human aggressors finds a small human girl to help, meanwhile Caesar copes with the fallout from Koba’s rebellion in Dawn and fears that his own hate for humans is turning himself into Koba. Woody Herrilson plays the film’s antagonist with a blunter edge of evil than the series has given humans before – and then it graces him with a monologue that puts the audience in his fearful headspace.
The plot is too much fun to watch unfold and escalate to get into details here, and frankly those beats aren’t as important. Suffice to say it is a revenge film and a sci-fi film that Matt Reeves allows to wear its influences on its sleeve, heavily pulling inspiration from Vietnam films especially Apocalypse Now. It doesn’t become a war film as much as a WWII POW film. The Great Ape Escape, as it where, and it is ripe for dissection with historical and even biblical allegories. It does all this seemingly effortlessly and with more restraint than a summer movie usually does. In the aforementioned scene, where the ape group discovers an abandoned child, the apes walk through a house with shotguns with only the sounds of creaking wood and crashing waves outside on the soundtrack.
War for the Planet of the Apes takes a surreal concept, from the template of the preachy 1960s Rod Serling playbook, and reinvents it into a whole new animal that stands on its own without any need to tie back to the original films. It actually is the reverse of most modern remakes, adding nuance to a story originally only concerned with black and white moralizing. A scrumptiously detailed, atmospheric, character-focused thrill-ride. It is a master-class in genre filmmaking from Reeves and it’s the best movie of this summer.