One of the biggest twists in film history is at the end of the original 1968 classic, Planet of the Apes, when Charlton Heston’s George Taylor discovers that he was on Earth the entire time after coming upon the broken, worn Statue of Liberty. Not so long ago, Twentieth Century Fox planted the seeds of that iconic reveal for the basis of what can only be deemed a modern classic, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, creating an origin story that allowed for the natural birth of a more intelligent ape species that also led to a devastating virus that eventually wiped out the majority of the human population, all while delivering a realistic vision of apes through motion capture technology and performances that generated true emotion. Six years later, the geniuses at Weta Digital continue to use these great performances to create their own fully-realized characters in War for the Planet of the Apes, the third chapter in the rebooted franchise.
The guys toiling away countless hours behind a computer aren’t the only ones who deserve credit, mind you. Director Matt Reeves (who co-wrote the script with Mark Bomback) envisions a rich and vibrant world that never comes across as disingenuous. Even though the story is about a society of apes taking over the planet from humans, you truly feel for the plight of the apes and what they’ve had to endure since the rise of their IQs. This is mostly due to the fact that the apes really didn’t have anything to do with what happened to humans. The simian flu virus that wiped out the population was created by humans in a vain attempt to play God. The apes, led by the original test subject, Caesar (Andy Serkis), only want to coexist with their human counterparts.
But now a new threat to human civilization looms. The simian flu, which as we’re told basically still lives dormant in the immune, has found a way to evolve and is now attacking humans by stripping them of their ability to speak. The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a merciless army colonel, believes the only humane way to stop this new mutation from spreading and turning everyone into speechless animals is by killing those who get infected and burn all of their possessions. Other human factions have a different opinion, believing they can stop the spread of the new virus through science. The two sides are in the midst of war with one another at the same time they continue to fight the imagined threat coming from the apes.
The real credit for the success of this new trilogy, though, must go to Serkis, who imbues Caesar with such torturous conflict. Because Caesar was raised by a human, he cares for them and doesn’t want to see anyone die, especially his own kind. He’s heartbroken for having to fight his own to prove his willingness to cohabitate, but most humans still don’t understand, or care. So when the Colonel kills Caesar’s wife and child during a raid of the apes’s home, he transforms from the peaceful patriarch to the vengeful monster the Colonel believes him to be. But his true self remains buried beneath the anger and hatred, and Serkis conveys every crack and every painful decision with aplomb, drawing genuine sympathy out of his pursuit of vengeance. He understands what he’s doing his wrong, but he can’t help himself, and that conflict shines through, even under the computer animated costumes.
Just as Caesar led the Apes as a peaceful warrior, Serkis encourages the other actors to follow his lead in delivering outstanding performances. Sara Canning does a terrific job as Lake, the girlfriend of Caesar’s eldest son, Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), showcasing a strong will and a broken heart all at once. She helps Caesar grow strong when he’s at his weakest and doesn’t show an ounce of weakness, despite the circumstances they’re forced to endure. When Caesar heads off to kill the Colonel for what he did, a few of his closest friends and protectors join him, including Maurice (Karin Konoval), the orangutan who helped Caesar rise up against both his abusive captors and become alpha among his own kind. When the group crosses paths with a young girl (Amiah Miller) afflicted with the new virus, the kindness and compassion he shows for her is overwhelming.
Relative newcomer Miller also does a wonderful job as the girl. With just one silent look, she does more than Isabela Moner did in the entirety of Transformers: The Last Knight, and her character has a purpose. It’s not anything huge or monumental, but just her being there allows Caesar to fight to remain true to who he is and what his legacy will become. But as I’m sure most people will say, the best new character is a small, skinny ape who calls himself “bad ape” because the people who abused him while part of a zoo continually said that to him. Bad ape is played with ridiculous flair by the master of ridiculous flair, Steve Zahn, and he’s able to provide the overall dour film with a spark of life and humanity, not to mention a slew of comic-relief that doesn’t feel forced or out of place.
Another nice addition is the subtle nods to the original 1968 film, as we meet the younger versions of a couple of very important characters who could very well carry the mantle in future Planet of the Apes sequels. What Reeves does well is bring these connections to light without shoving them in your face. If you’re a fan of the original, you’ll understand the references; if not, they don’t appear to be all that important. If there was a flaw in the film, it would be that the film wraps everything up a little too easily. But I like the soft nod to The Great Escape that occurs in the third act, and everything that leads up to it is a soft meditation on the ramifications of going against nature.
Though I’m sure this won’t be the last we see of the Planet of the Apes franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes was a fitting end to this particular trilogy and a nice bridge from where James Franco started to when Charlton Heston crash lands on an unusual world ruled by apes who keep speechless humans in cages.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Dinkirk, Girls Trip and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. If you would like to see a review for tone of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.