In 2011, no one thought that Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be much cop. But not only did this plucky prequel prove to be terrific fun, it spawned one of the best trilogies in recent years: its closing chapter, War for the Planet of the Apes, being the king of the swingers.
Two years on from middle-chapter Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) is holed up in the forest, still fighting the war against humans that the villainous Koba (Toby Kebbell) started. Following an attack by the psychotic Colonel (Woody Harrelson), Caesar goes on the warpath, flanked by long-standing lieutenants Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). On their way to confront the Colonel, the troop meet a nameless, mute human child (Amiah Miller) and ex-zoo chimp Bad Ape (Steve Zahn).
Fans of Dawn will find themselves on sure footing, with director Matt Reeves returning to helm and co-write with Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback, and both DoP Michael Seresin and composer Michael Giacchino back on fine form. The returning crew make War a piece with Dawn, with the plot effectively a refined version of Dawn’s. Yet everything here is more assured – from the explosive opening sequence, the driving, primal score and frequently epic cinematography.
War’s MVP is undoubtedly Serkis, who has visibly matured with his Caesar. The most photo-realistic CGI ever put to film – no, really – in synergy with Serkis’ organic performance make Caesar as real a character as any of his human counterparts. In the age of CGI overload, Serkis and the geniuses at Weta Digital Workshop have accomplished something truly astonishing, and a fitting tribute to the groundbreaking ape make-up of the original. Weirdly, the Charlton Heston film that War has most in common with is not the one you’d expect: with an actual plague visited down on humans and a Cecil B. DeMille finale, Caesar is more Moses than Dr. Zaius.
Reeves balances his generic influences particularly well in his film’s first half, resulting in some gorgeous ape-on-horseback shots that call back to The Outlaw Josey Wales as much as they do the original simian series. When Caesar finally arrives at the Colonel’s camp, a fortified prison, War suddenly becomes a mixture of The Great Escape and Apocalypse Now, the latter sadly referenced one too many times for it not to distract. More distracting, however, is the almost total absence of women – human or simian – something with which the prequel series has struggled.
The original series’ Zira (Kim Hunter) was a driving force in those films, so it’s especially galling that literally half of both species in Apes 2017 don’t seem to have much of a stake in either’s continuation. Nevertheless, War for the Planet of the Apes is assured filmmaking. Reeves knows that the ninth film in the series could never have the existential impact or speculative scope of the 1968 original, so foregoing breadth in favour of depth, War is at its core a character study disguised as a science fiction epic. Dunkirk aside, this is the summer’s best blockbuster.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell