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War for the Planet of the Apes : A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

My Rating : 4.8 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation : SEE IT NOW!!!

War for the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matt Reeves and written by Reeves and Mark Bomback, is the third installment of the recent "Caesar trilogy" of Planet of the Apes films. The movie tells the story of the chimpanzee Caesar and his band of intelligent apes as they do battle against the humans trying to exterminate them. The film stars Andy Serkis as Caesar, with supporting roles played by Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn and Karin Konoval.

I am admittedly an ardent Planet of the Apes freak. As a kid I went "ape" for the original film Planet of the Apes starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowell, and all four of the sequels, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet for the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Most kids of my generation were Star Wars fanatics, but I was a Planet of the Apes guy. I had Planet of the Apes action figures, a Planet of the Apes lunchbox and even a Planet of the Apes board game. More than once I dressed as the Cornelius character from the The Planet of the Apes movies for Halloween.

My love of the "Apes" films did not diminish as I grew older, it actually broadened. As I became more intellectually aware I enjoyed the Planet of the Apes films not just for their mythology and science fiction, but also as for their very smart and insightful social and political commentary. The original Planet of the Apes films courageously delved into the culturally relevant topics of racism, class, race relations, nuclear war and militarism with an intelligence and force absent from much more "serious" movies.

The reason I bring up my long love affair with Planet of the Apes is because I think my feelings for this new film need some context. I loved the old Apes movies (I loathed the Tim Burton 2001 Planet of the Apes which should be exiled out past the Forbidden Zone!!) and I was so pleasantly surprised and thrilled with the newer additions to the franchise, starting with the finely crafted Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, followed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which wasn't as good as Rise of the Planet of the Apes but was still worthwhile. What I am trying to say is that I love a great Ape movie…and I despise a shitty one…I'm looking at you Tim Burton, you lousy son of a bitch. 

Which brings me to the new Planet of the Apes movie, War for the Planet of the Apes. I can say, without the slightest hesitation, that War for the Planet of the Apes is an astonishingly spectacular film, one of the very best of the year. War for the Planet of the Apes is a big, blockbuster summer movie sequel, that is for sure, but it is also a real, honest to goodness film that tells a genuine, deeply personal, intimate, emotional story while also revealing greater truths about humanity and the state of our world.  

As a filmmaking exercise, War for the Planet of the Apes is staggeringly well made. Cinematically the film is stunningly gorgeous. The CGI is impeccable, as there is never a moment when you don't think you are watching real life, except with talking monkeys. It is simply crazy how great the special effects are in this movie. The attention to physical detail on all the ape characters is beyond exquisite. 

The decision to shoot the film in a cold, snowy, winter climate was a brilliant one as well. The blue and white colors of the scenery accentuate the exacting beauty of the apes and also fortify the sub-text of the personal, emotional winter through which the main characters must journey and endure. The cold weather and the accompanying condensation of breath is the type of detail and specificity give the film a genuine authenticity and elevates it from the mundane to the sublime.

 

As for the story, well, War for the Planet of the Apes feels biblical because it is biblical. The film's protagonist, Caesar, marvelously played by CGI master actor Andy Serkis, is a cross between Moses, Jesus Christ and even Noah. In the context of the Planet of the Apes canon, this story is meant to be be biblical (with God even making an appearance), as it is the basis for the ape civilizations founding religious and civic text, The Sacred Scrolls, upon which the Planet of the Apes mythology is based. In this ape dominant universe, future young apes will study the story of Caesar that we have witnessed in in Dawn, Rise and War for the Planet of the Apes in their Sacred Scrolls just as we humans have studied Moses, Noah and Christ in the bible. The similarities between Caesar and Christ, in particular, are very striking but subtly delivered, as director Reeves uses a deft touch to convey that delicious metaphor. 

Maybe the greatest thing about War for the Planet of the Apes, among the plethora of great things about it, is that it fits in perfectly with the Planet of the Apes universe and mythology, and has a consistent and coherent internal logic and rationality to it that never flounders. Standing alone the film makes entire sense, but in the canon of Planet of the Apes movies, it is even more illuminating.  One could go from watching War for the Planet of the Apes to watching the original 1968 Charlton Heston Planet of the Apes and not miss a beat. That creative coherence is a testament to Reeves and his commitment to, and respect for, the gloriously fertile source material. 

Reeves also makes an enlightened choice to pay homage to another of my favorite films, Apocalypse Now throughout War for the Planet of the Apes. The signs and symbols of Copolla's classic film about war and madness set in Vietnam are scattered throughout the movie, none more so obvious than Woody Harrelson's portrayal of The Colonel, a Kilgore-esque, god-like Special Forces leader who is out to exterminate apes with extreme prejudice and by any means necessary. Harrelson does a terrific job as The Colonel, bringing an imposing sense of power to the role of which I didn't think he was capable. Harrelson is an under appreciated actor who has evolved to be quite the craftsmen and he is an unnerving joy to behold as The Colonel.

The other actors of note are all playing apes, so most would think the CGI does all the hard work, but that is a terribly misguided assumption. Andy Serkis is once again rock solid as Caesar, making the ape leader more a human/ape hybrid than just a miniature King Kong. Serkis has played Caesar for three films now, and the most amazing thing about his performance is that he has made a chimpanzee into a quintessential Hollywood leading man. Caesar is not quite as interesting or entertaining as his fellow bonobo, gorilla or orangutan comrades, but he has been able to carry three very successful and high quality films to great box office success. Caesar, who is a cross between 1970's Clint Eastwood and 1940's Henry Fonda, may be the best leading man Hollywood has going for it right now compared to all of our other modern movie stars, and that is a monumental achievement and testament to the skill and talent of Andy Serkis.

The stand out performance in the film though is from Steve Zahn, who is a very accomplished actor in his own right without any CGI assistance. Zahn plays Bad Ape, and he steals the show. Bad Ape is, in keeping with the Apocalypse Now theme, like Dennis Hopper's photojournalist character in Francis Coppola's masterpiece. Bad Ape is both comedic relief and a holy fool. Zahn's Bad Ape is both funny and touching and is a revelatory piece of work. The CGI of Bad Ape is almost as stunning as that of the orangutan Maurice and is every bit the equal to Zahn's exceptional work in the role. 

Karin Konoval plays the aforementioned orangutan Maurice, and although he communicates through sign language, Maurice has the most palpable sense of humanity about him. Maurice and his CGI are truly a stupendous work of art and may be the most beautiful thing to appear on film in recent memory. But it is the delicate skill of Karin Konoval that gives Maurice a gentle spirit and intelligence that is so tangible and compelling as to be miraculous. 

In conclusion, I have intentionally not given much information in this review so as to not taint anyone's viewing experience of War for the Planet of the Apes. I was enraptured from the get go by this film and I would not want to ruin the movie going experience for anyone else. That said, I am incapable of saying whether a non-Planet of the Apes fan would love this movie as passionately as I did. I do think that non-Planet of the Apes fans will thoroughly enjoy this movie as just a stand alone piece of entertainment and quality filmmaking, I just don't know if it will resonate with them as personally and on as deep a level as it did with me. 

As a Planet of the Apes fan, I can say without hesitation that this is the perfect Apes movie, and is easily the very best of all of the Planet of the Apes films ever made. I am a grown man and this movie about talking monkeys was able to make me cry, cheer, seethe and squirm. That is a testament not only to Matt Reeves stellar direction, but to his respect for the deep mythology and history of the the Planet of the Apes franchise and universe. I wholeheartedly encourage anyone and everyone to go see this film. You simply will not find a finer or better made summer blockbuster movie that is also a top-notch and serious piece of filmmaking. What are you waiting for…GO. SEE. IT. NOW.

©2017