We all have certain expectations when it comes to summer blockbusters. We expect muscle bound heroes, violence without consequence, and thin story that simply serves as a set up for mindless spectacle. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the predictable can become stale.
And then there’s War for the Planet of the Apes.
This is a great film that shows summer blockbusters can be more than spectacle. While there are spectacular set pieces in War, but that is not what stands out. Great performances from Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson anchor this “anti-blockbuster” with a surprisingly contemplative story about vengeance, self-sacrifice, and fanaticism. It takes some interesting twists that play with the conventions of an action movie. Not all of them work, but the unique take on the mainstream science fiction genre makes this one of the best films of the summer.
Some years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his community of intelligent apes struggle to fend off a human military force known as Alpha-Omega. Their sanctuary is slowly shrinking and after Alpha-Omega’s mysterious Colonel (Woody Harrelson) leads an attack that strikes at Caesar’s heart, the weary leader embarks on a personal quest for revenge. The journey forces Caesar to confront his own demons as he learns the Colonel is much more dangerous than he believed.
Once again, Andy Serkis provides the heart of this franchise. His performance is largely visual, relying on Caesar’s expressive eyes and face to convey his emotion. We feel every emotion, whether it be his quiet joy with his family or his simmering rage. It’s a subtle and layered performance that is rare for a character in a summer flick.
And he is full-fledged character, not just a special effect. The “uncanny valley” is almost completely absent in this outing, allowing Serkis’ brilliant performance to stand out. Caesar and the other apes, with few exceptions, always feel real. Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a new intelligent ape Caesar encounters in the wilds, is another example of this. Zahn’s comic timing is allowed to breath in a tangible character.
On the human side, Woody Harrelson gives War a fanatical antagonist worthy of any action film. He is cold, calculating, and dangerous as Harrelson brings a formidable menace to the character. He also gives the character charisma, making it obvious why a group of men would follow him. However, the real drama comes from how much he and Caesar have in common.
The Colonel is a dark mirror of Caesar, a reminder of what the ape leader could become should he give in to his darker instincts. The Colonel has a tragic and sympathetic backstory that is very similar to Caesar’s. To go into too much detail would lead to spoiler territory, but this similarity throws the usual hero/villain dynamic into compelling territory. It’s been done before in other films, but it is handled flawlessly here.
Besides Harrelson, the human portrayals are largely absent. Amiah Miller is great as the young girl Caesar and his group befriend. Like Caesar, this girl is almost purely visual and Miller owns it. Her performance makes a somewhat obvious attempt to manipulate the audience’s emotions in one scene hit hard.
War’s overall tone is surprisingly somber. From Michael Giacchino’s minimalist score to writer/director Matt Reeves’ long, beautifully visual shots throughout the film, this is a methodical meditation. This may turn some movie fans off, but it’s a small but brilliant creative choice. It takes the time to build up the characters and force them to ask hard questions about themselves. There are consequences for foolish actions, a rare trait in blockbuster films. There are spectacular set pieces, but they compliment the story, not the other way around.
Lost in the Message
War does have some notable flaws. The franchise follows the rise of a new civilization, so it employs religious symbolism. This entry does the same, but it is hit and miss. There are some visual cues to Moses, crucifixes and other iconography, but it feels heavy handed. The rest of the film is wonderfully subtle, so these moments stick out in the worst way. Also, why exactly would ape civilization mirror human religion? Shouldn’t they start something new?
The Simian flu returns in War with some new dangers, but the film is unclear about those effects. The exact details can’t be discussed here without ruining the film, but you should know that it’s slightly confusing. It doesn’t lessen the tragedy surrounding the virus…this complaint is more of a nitpick.
Top of the Season
This summer has given us the startlingly original with Baby Driver, great heroes with Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the usual mindless fun. But War for the Planet of the Apes brings us a nearly flawless experience. The somber tone, contemplative nature, and superb acting show that summer movies don’t have to be shallow. Dare I say, they could be award worthy.
It’s like Christmas in July!
SCORE: 9.5 OUT OF 10