War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

This modern Planet of the Apes reboot series is curious in how earnestly it commits to its old-school sci-fi premise. These aren’t films coated in thick layers of irony, they don’t arm themselves in quips and wink at the crowd assuring viewers that they’re aware of the silliness of the premise, and they keep the technobabble justifications to a minimum. Like the 1968 original, they’re unashamedly earnest science-fiction, using speculative ideas and filmmaking techniques to poke at human concerns and questions. “War for the Planet of the Apes” continues that feeling of throwback science-fiction, barrelling ever forward to the state of affairs in the 1968 original, but director Matt Reeves pushes that throwback vibe to not just call back to science-fiction films of the 1960s, but biblical epics as well. The Caesar-Moses parallels aren’t subtle, but elevating Caesar and the direction of the series toward the mythic feels earned after the previous two films, and the film feels like a fitting and resonant ending, although there’s easily more places for the series to go.

Matt Reeves, Andy Serkis, and everyone else involved seem so committed to using the film’s stunning special effects in service of the story and of bringing out audience empathy, that it really is tremendously easy to get fully immersed in the world of apes. Serkis doesn’t get anyone as similarly dedicated and skilled to play off as he did in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, with Tony Kebbell’s excellent performance as Koba, but Woody Harrelson’s “Colonel” antagonist does transcend his superficial Kurtz impression when the film lets him actually vocalise his views instead of just acting as a villainous prop. To a certain extent I wish the film had explored the moral dilemma the Colonel’s surprisingly sound arguments opened up, but it isn’t a particularly dialogue-heavy film, which is an approach that works well for it. Reeves seems content for a lot of things to play out as implications alone, and the film does tend to work best when going for that mythic vibe (particularly in the third act), but I feel like some of the time committed to prison drudgery might have been better served exploring that moral dilemma that felt so well-suited to the series’ general approach on such hallmarks of science-fiction.

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Still, then again, that relentlessly dour approach in prison worked really well in the film, and I was mildly annoyed at scenes that tried to jar the tone away from that because it was so engrossing. Ending a trilogy (of sorts) on such a comparatively downbeat, lowkey film felt very much the wise choice to me, refocusing the story on Caesar’s internal conflicts between aggression and tolerance, barbarism and civilisation, peace and war, and so on, rather than empty theatrics and hollow “wars” – I was rather amused and delighted how little the eponymous “war” actually featured in the film. When actual battles would appear on screen, often the action was literally out of focus, leaving Caesar in the foreground as he worked away at more important things, most appropriate.

The writing connects to the 1968 original much more than I expected, in some clever timeline collapsing and narrative moves. But the focus remains wisely more on character than plot, and the way the plot relates to the original film remains more a curiosity and frame of reference than a vital beat of the film. Another pleasant surprise was the score, Michael Giacchino clearly putting in a whole league of magnitude of more effort here than a lot of his other recent films.

Perhaps the film relies too much at calling to other films (not only its two predecessors and 1968 original, but the biblical epics it’s clearly in service of, the prison films it evokes, the implicit and explicit references to “Apocalypse Now”, and so on), but it never feels in service of franchise-building or commercial appeals, instead it feels in service to the film’s individual story itself. I think bringing the scale down a notch and focusing so much on Caesar and his motivations was the wise move. One of the best and most consistent film trilogies I’ve seen. I give it four dolls, and a blue jacket.

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