Home > Reviews > WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES Review (spoilers)

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES Review (spoilers)

Yep, I saw another movie today, just a week after saying I couldn’t afford the indulgence much. Don’t worry, I’m not spending the money from my still-ongoing book sale on recreation — I got an unexpected tax refund from the city over the weekend, enough to pay for two movies with a few bucks to spare. So I just had to see War for the Planet of the Apes, which I’d heard such great things about.

And it was very good. I’m actually relieved that the title is, once again, something of a misnomer. For the most part, this wasn’t a war movie. There was a bit of war movie in the beginning, but then it became a revenge-quest movie, almost a Western; and the last half was pretty much a prison-break movie. Indeed, I submit that a better title for this film would’ve been a slight twist on a classic one: Escape to the Planet of the Apes.

But most of all, this is the conclusion of Caesar’s journey, continuing from the first two films. His quest for vengeance and the consequences and lessons he must face are what drive the story, and he manages to remain a deeply sympathetic character even in his darkest moments, because you can see his grim, mournful recognition of what he’s become even as he continues down that path. And of course that’s what leads into his return to a more heroic role later on; the capture of his people moves him away from his personal vendetta to a renewed embrace of his responsibility to those he leads, so that his actions are again guided by compassion and selflessness. What Caesar needed to learn was that the thing about being a leader (as some current real-world leaders are alarmingly incapable of understanding) is that you no longer have the luxury of letting things be about you. Andy Serkis continues to play Caesar brilliantly, and the animators and performance capture artists are as good as ever at conveying and augmenting the nuances of his performance. (Although some of the body movements did look a bit artificial to me at times, with motion seeming to start and stop a bit jerkily with too little momentum. But it was very subtle.)

The Colonel (McCullough) was a very well-written antagonist for Caesar, matching him in complexity. I liked it that, for all that he was a fanatic and maybe a bit mad, he was the more rational of the two. He’d already been through the kind of pain and loss that engulfed Caesar, already made his choice and come out the other side, so he was able to see things more clearly in a way — wrongly, perhaps, but clearly, calculatingly. It was also interesting that he wasn’t a bigot, didn’t look down on apes as inferior. He accepted Caesar as a military leader of equal standing to himself, respected his intelligence and prowess. He allowed his followers to be bigoted, perhaps because it helped motivate them in a war of species survival, but he wasn’t so blind himself. Some very interesting writing there. As for the performance, Woody Harrelson was good enough, but I’ve never seen him as a particularly brilliant actor, and I have trouble not seeing him as the dimwitted kid from Cheers.

There was some standout acting here, but mostly not from humans, at least not speaking ones. Steve Zahn was a lot of fun as the comic-relief Bad Ape, and Karin Konoval’s Maurice and Amiah Miller’s Nova had a touching relationship conveyed through excellent wordless acting.

Most of all, it’s impressive what this movie achieved. The first film was told mainly from a human perspective as Caesar and the intelligent apes first emerged. The second was told about equally from human and ape perspectives. But this one completes the transition, as befits the overarching storyline, and is told entirely from the apes’ POV, with the few humans as the alien threat to be defended against (or assimilated, in Nova’s case). It’s great that they were willing and able to go there. It surely helps that the first two movies laid the groundwork, not only in technology but in character development and performance, to make us want to see a movie told fully from the apes’ perspective. It might be interesting to see a fourth movie, perhaps with Serkis as a grown-up Cornelius, in which there are no speaking human characters at all. (I’m in no hurry for those astronauts seeded in the first movie to show up. These movies have defined their own direction so brilliantly that doing a remake of the original film would seem like a step backward. I’d rather see more exploration of the emergence of ape civilization, the historical gap that wasn’t explored in the original films.)

As far as the human characters go, I’m pleased that the film made at least some attempt to correct the casting problem of the previous one, in which nearly all the prominent human characters were white except for the designated bastard/secondary villain. This film still defaults to white for the two main humans, the Colonel and Nova, but fortunately the other prominent human characters are more diverse, including Gabriel Chavarria as the main soldier character Preacher and Roger Cross and Dean Redman as two of the Colonel’s junior officers. It was a nice surprise to see Cross (whom I met briefly at Shore Leave two years ago) in the film, but disappointing to see him killed off just minutes into the first reel. He deserves better than that; heck, he could’ve played the Colonel at least as well as Harrelson.

Major spoilers ahead:

I’m a little unsure about the climax — the huge human army rolls in, and then gets wiped out in moments by an avalanche? But I guess it isn’t random. For one thing, the avalanche was undoubtedly the result of the explosion Caesar set off. And it may seem awfully convenient, but I suppose it ties into the theme, expressed earlier by the Colonel, of nature punishing humanity for its hubris.

Speaking of which, I think it’s kind of poignantly fitting that what ultimately defeated the Colonel wasn’t violence, but a simple act of kindness by Nova. Because she came to help Caesar and gave him her doll, the Colonel was infected with the very disease he’d murdered so many people to try to stop. I could see that was going to happen the moment I saw the Colonel pick up the doll. In fact, that went very differently than I expected. When Nova snuck into camp, I was horrified, knowing that the Colonel would kill her if he found her. So that was a nerve-racking moment, but it ended up resolving in the opposite way from what I feared. Was that a little too easy? Maybe. But, as with the avalanche, maybe the point was to show the inevitability of the humans’ defeat at the hands of natural forces they could no longer control. And it’s an amazing accomplishment of this movie to make us see that as a happy ending. Maybe because the message is that human life has value with or without our intellect and civilization — that no matter what limitations we have, we deserve to be accepted and cared for, as Nova was by the apes, rather than killed to preserve the status quo. In the end, the apes were more humane than the humans, and so they deserved to win. Although only time will tell if they manage to preserve that empathy or end up building an oppressive society more like that of the original films.

There’s also the unexpected moral ambiguity of Caesar allowing the Colonel to kill himself as an act of compassion. The real revenge at that point would’ve been to condemn the Colonel to survive and infect the rest of his troops, bringing on the very catastrophe he’d fought so hard to prevent. But Caesar was still a decent being at heart, and so he allowed the Colonel to make his own choice. Not that it ultimately made much difference in the grand scheme of things, but in that moment, to the Colonel, it mattered. Considering how much I hate the tendency of movies to kill off the bad guys and make us root for it, I’m surprised to see a movie that makes me see the bad guy’s suicide as a sign of the hero’s positive growth. This is a remarkably nuanced story.

Let’s see, what else? Well, I kinda liked how the opening text exposition worked in the titles of the first two films in its recap. It helps as a mnemonic for which one was Rise and which one was Dawn, and it was a nice touch to have the actual title graphic grow out of the exposition text. Michael Giacchino’s score was very good (hey, he’s scored both the movies I saw in the theater this month); in Dawn, I thought he was evoking the earlier Apes scores by Jerry Goldsmith and Leonard Rosenman, but this score was different, surprisingly John Barry-ish at times. I love how classically cinematic Giacchino’s scores sound. He’s really been firing on all cylinders lately.

So that’s the end of Caesar’s trilogy, and quite a saga it’s been. At some point I’m going to have to binge the entire trilogy back-to-back, experience it as a single whole. It’s a remake that equals the best of its original and surpasses it in quality overall — and certainly has more consistency among its parts, despite the director change after the first film. And it stands on its own as a groundbreaking cinematic achievement. The Apes have indeed evolved.

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  1. July 26, 2017 at 12:22 am

    Fantastic review! I really enjoy reading something like this from the perspective of a respected novelist. Most insightful.

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