By Rory McArthur (@RoryMeep)
The rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise has always been an outlier in terms of modern blockbusters. Ghostbusters, Power Rangers, Ghost in the Shell; all recent attempts to revive classic properties, and all, for better or for worse, critical and commercial failures. By all rights, POTA should have followed the same path, but instead it forged its own. Revelling in a slightly less bombastic approach to the summer blockbuster, each movie has genuine heart and soul in abundance, and the concluding chapter of the trilogy is no different. Set around 2 years after the events of Dawn, War sees Caesar and his apes locked in a battle for survival against a rogue band of soldiers, led by Woody Harrelson’s unhinged Colonel. Part revenge tale, part dystopian sci-fi, part biblical epic, War truly is a marvel.
Right from the opening battle scene, you know you’re in for a different sort of ride than before. Set deep inside a forest, the tension is palpable as a group of human soldiers branded ‘monkey killer’ and ‘endangered species’ stalk an ape stronghold. Vietnam comparisons are unavoidable as characters desperately drag themselves through the mud and dirt, making for a visceral and immediately enthralling introduction to this final chapter.
But the battles are not the focus of the film, not by any stretch. Soon enough, Caesar and his closest companions break off from the larger group of apes and set off themselves, trading the wild forests of the film’s opening for a cold, isolated environment up in the mountains. It is here they encounter the mute child, Nova, played wonderfully by Amiah Miller, and Steve Zahn’s Bad-Ape. Both are welcome additions to the cast, but it is Nova in particular who shines. She shares more than a few hard-hitting moments with our ape protagonists, reminding us that this war is a complex beast, where both sides are painted in various shades of grey. Such moments are where the film truly shines, overshadowing the later action scenes with ease.
A much bleaker movie than its predecessors, we see darker shades of our characters than ever before. Caesar, by his own admission, is becoming more and more like Koba, the hate filled ape who began the conflict with humans in earnest in Dawn. As his own hate begins to take hold, he is forced to grapple with not only the threat the humans pose, but with how his actions have brought those he loves into danger. And it makes for incredibly compelling viewing. This is, in no small part, due to another stellar performance from Andy Serkis. His motion capture imbues his characters struggle with so much emotional nuance, that the image of a CG chimpanzee totally melts away, and we’re simply left with an incredible actor, giving an incredible performance, inhabiting an incredible character.
As such, the humans are also forced to take on a new level of darkness. Harrelson’s Colonel represents the first time the human lead in the series has been the out-and-out antagonist, but his character is much more complex than that of a ‘villain’. In the mould of Koba before him, you understand the Colonel’s motivations. Like Caesar, he is simply fighting to survive, and in his own head, his crueller actions are totally justified in the name of saving his species. By the time his arc draws to a close, you can’t help but feel some sympathy for the guy, and at the start of the film, that’s the last thing you would have expected.
Unfortunately, where the film falls down slightly is with its climax. The trailers and marketing teased a big, final confrontation between the apes and the humans, and this just doesn’t materialise. It didn’t necessarily have to, but the third act action scenes we get in its place do seem, at times, a little anti-climactic and overly reliant on coincidence. Without spoiling anything, the apes are, in a way, reduced to secondary players in their own struggle, and although the thematic resonance is there, and its makes for some potential social commentary, many will undoubtedly feel like another route could have been taken plot wise.
Flawed but ultimately satisfying, this finale is as emotionally resonant and satisfying as we all hoped it would be. While not quite reaching the heights of Dawn, War still stands on its own as a fantastically brutal epic of biblical proportions. The titular war has become more complex than ever, and while we stay rooting for the apes, the overall horrors of conflict remain the main takeaway from the action. And it is this level of complexity that makes these films great. Sure they have CGI apes punching each other, and large-scale action set pieces and all that jazz, but ultimately they’re films about what it means to be human, and the way Matt Reeves has chosen to explore that theme is a true wonder to behold.