Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

It is not an easy task to tell a story when the audience knows where it is going. War for the Planet of the Apes is the culmination of a trilogy in a storied franchise that has been told and retold over decades. So when we ultimately end up with a "Planet of the Apes," it is not surprising. What is surprising, however, is the angle Matt Reeves' film takes on humanity, which it approaches entirely through the actions and interactions of the apes. This winds up being both a positive and a negative, but the final product is nothing if not competent. At no point does it feel like Reeves is lost in this world and that alone is enough to make the film a success. He makes allusions to Vietnam (and war in general), mass incarceration, slavery and host of other thorny subjects, but at no point does any of it feel forced or overblown. 

Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The film opens with Caesar (portrayed via the brilliant motion capture acting of Andy Serkis) and his clan in conflict with a military faction called Alpha-Omega. Various types of ape band together and hide in the woods in an effort to evade human contact. When Alpha-Omega's leader, the Colonel (played by Woody Harrelson), executes an attack on Caesar's clan, Caesar sets out to exact revenge. 

Along the way, Caesar and a small band of apes learn more and more about what is going on outside of their circle. One revelation, that there is a sickness that is spreading among humans, comes to shape their understanding of not only the actions of the humans, but also their place in the world. What follows is a mix of blockbuster action and quiet tender moments that combine to make for a compelling journey. 

Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The idea of film as a mirror is a powerful one. Films are often meant to serve as a two hour take on what it means to be human. War for the Planet of the Apes has a lot to say about what it means to be human, but does so almost entirely through the actions, thoughts and emotions of apes. The film is largely uninterested in the humans and whatever their motivations turn out to be. This feels like both a misstep and a strength--as more exploration of the humans might have added nuance, but it would have detracted from the film's real mission.

 As a character study of Caesar, the film is ultimately satisfying. It is all about him and the film never forgets that. Every other character's actions exist in a fog of what is ultimately best for a vengeful Caesar. This world is also told almost entirely through Caesar's lens. Our understanding of the characters around him only evolves when he has more information. None of this is necessarily a negative, but if you bore of Caesar, you are unlikely to find much to like. 

Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

But where the film really shines is in its technical wonder. At no point does it ever feel like you are watching the physical movements of humans graphed onto CGI reproductions of these apes. Everything is fluid and what you see on screen comes across as one seamless world. There is not a single frame that has that CGI feel and yet, there is not a single scene that isn't dominated by these CGI reproductions. Some combination of Andy Serkis and advancements in technology have made possible a story where you can truly forget the line between ape and human. Perhaps that was Reeves' objective all along. 

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