Hearts can officially break for computerized protagonists as we cheer for the triumphant conclusion that is War for the Planet of the Apes.
Where do I start? Had someone told me back on 2011 that a “Planet of the Apes” prequel series would be listed among the very few complete trilogies I would have thought that someone had lost their collective mind. To say these films are just a technological achievement would be a downright lie. However, it is the achievement in motion capture that proves once again that Weta workshop as the best in the business as CGI officially makes its true mark with this series.
Aside from the beautiful motion capture, War for the Planet of the Apes continues the reverse evolutionary study of human cognizance in the final film of the “Caesar” series. With Rise, the viewer was introduced to the ape Caesar, played by Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings) growing up in a human home as a test subject for the cure of Alzheimer’s disease. After an adverse reaction to the drug, humans without an immunization begin to die from the “simian flu” as the apes become smarter and escape from harm in the forest. In Dawn, we are shown a humanity trying to coexist with nature as the apes create a community within themselves. Finally, in War for the Planet of the Apes we are shown the summation of these two films as humans begin to lose cognitive thoughts and speech, as they battle for a world now dominated by apes. Throughout the series, we watch as Caesar becomes the forefather of a new species of thought as they move from a primitive to a fully advanced state of mind.
Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) and Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) are the perfect tandem for this film. Rather than a two and a half hour full battle sequence between man and ape, these filmmakers chose a more personal approach this summer blockbuster. After an initial battle sequence between American soldiers and Caesars army, we follow our protagonists from the perspective as refugees. Caesar, Rocket, and Maurice journey to find the truth about the human condition as they lead their tribe to safety. Through their journey, they become prisoners of war as they discover more humans with the inability to speak, as the disease continues to dominate the mind. Our characters also discover more apes with an ability to communicate such as one played by Steve Zahn (Rescue Dawn). Zahn’s character “bad ape” provides a light-hearted comic relief character in an otherwise dark and haunting film. Although our antagonist has a face and humans are marginally portrayed as pigs of war, Caesar finds himself harboring the same feelings of hate he preaches so heavily against toward other apes and his human enemies.
The original Planet of the Apes (1968) was a comparison of faith oriented and atheistic study of history and science. In the wake of classroom evolution court cases like Epperson v Arkansas in the same year, POTA brought to the table a hard comparison of the extremes on both schools of thought. The prequels however, deal more with man’s ability to take our own cognizance for granted. As the humans begin to lose their minds and the apes gain ability, we are thrown into a world without faith. God has given man the ability to reason, empathize, and strategize situations throughout every adversity. As humans begin to lose these senses more and more, we go from reasoning visionaries in Rise like Will Rodman (James Franco, 127 Hours), to the neutral outcast in Dawn like Malcolm (Jason Clark, Zero Dark Thirty), to the hate fueled villain the “Colonel” (Woody Harrelson, Zombieland) we follow throughout War. Without thoughts or reason, our faith cannot survive. Without faith, we are subject to the sin that inevitably engulfs us. Again, War embodies these theories not from an evolutionary standpoint as its fifty year old predecessor, but as a conclusion to a series based on the duality of man.
From a critical standpoint, this film suffers the same ills as any prequel. Despite being great from all things listed above, the tension from the ultimate climax is lost on the fact that we know the end. For all this film’s greatness, its inability to sustain suspense throughout the entire two hours becomes a problem as our main characters fall deeper into turmoil, the use of unnecessary slow motion at times drags the third act, and the title is somewhat misleading. Although there are several action and battle sequences, the plot revolves more on the freedom of apes as empathetic persons than a full on war between man and ape. Despite delivering a reasonably strong performance we would expect from an actor is his caliber, Woody Harrelson’s over the top, sunglasses wearing, stereotypical sociopathic soldier is distracting at times. Seems to me his casting may have more to do with ticket sales and marketing than the performance itself.
The variation on the original 1968 score, nostalgia integration of the original series, a gripping new storyline, and heart-pumping action sequences make this film good. The scenery detail, motion capture and acting are what make this film great. Caesar might be the character we follow, but Andy Serkis is the reason we love him. The CGI in this film is so grand, I found myself at times forgetting the apes weren’t real. Certain scenes looked so real, it was almost as if they trained to monkeys to perform them. At no point in this film is the computerization of the main characters distracting, and the acting that goes behind it adds the cherry on top. In cartoons, actors use nothing more than voice and emotion. Here, the characters wouldn’t work if the actors couldn’t pull off the movements, language, and facial features needed to shape the characters. Because of this, I genuinely feel Serkis should be considered for Oscar recognition. Despite his person being replaced with computer graphics, Serkis delivers what I believe to be his best performance of his career. I’ve never truly believed in CGI as a character replacement in a live action movie until now. Through the ability to sculpt a character, and Serkis and Zahn’s ability to deliver lovable performances, Weta’s breakthrough with this series is here to stay.
Runtime: 140 Min, Rated: PG-13