Almost as rare as winning the Triple Crown in horse racing is to make a film trilogy that clicks from beginning to end, but Fox has pretty much pulled it off with its refurbished Planet of the Apes trio. After surprising everyone who felt that the half-century-old franchise had been buried for good by Tim Burton’s lamentable monkeyshines in 2001, the “Caesar” triptych — rooted in Andy Serkis‘ indelible performance as a reluctant rebel leader, splendid special effects and a shrewd racial/political thematic thread — amply satisfies as a smart sub-set of the nine-and-counting Apes features and two TV shows. Commercially, War for the Planet of the Apes will give Fox plenty to beat its chest about in the wake of Rise, which raked in $482 million worldwide, and Dawn, which leapfrogged that to a $710 million planetary total.
The provocative notion driving these latest derivatives of Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel rests on the revenge of the persecuted, the idea of the apes turning the tables on their longtime masters and tormentors, human beings. With the ranks of the latter massively thinned by a devastating virus, in Dawn it seemed like that aim was well on its way to becoming a reality before the intrinsically compassionate and peaceful Caesar was forced to contend with the thuggish human-hater Koba (Toby Kebbell).
The Apes score a hat trick.
But at the outset of War, the resolution of the Koba problem leaves Caesar more profoundly unsettled than ever. Already a Lincolnesque figure in the previous film, with little in common with his Roman namesake, he has now become a sage, weary and graying fellow who, due to a renewed human threat, must here transform into a new Moses who will lead his flock from their Edenic Muir Woods sanctuary to a new Promised Land.
It won’t take long for fans of the first two entries to be seduced once again into the world that Matt Reeves fashioned in Dawn and elaborates upon in War (the first entry, directed by Rupert Wyatt, was largely urban-set); the moist dark greens of the apes’ adopted habitat have once again been intoxicatingly captured by cinematographer Michael Seresin, and he and Reeves come close to overusing dramatic crane shots in their eagerness to display this pristine environment in its full glory. The sheer beauty of the film is intense (and one scarcely misses the 3D employed on the prior outing).
But despite its enticements, it’s a world the apes must leave due to a renewed threat from a human army dedicated to the proposition of giving homo sapiens one last shot at dominance (however nasty some apes can become, it seems that humans can always go them one step better). With Caesar suffering (as Lincoln did) from a searing personal loss in the midst of a larger struggle, a dual journey begins, an inner one in which Caesar wrestles with his conscience over whether to seek violent revenge on humans for what they’ve done to him and his intimates, along with the physical challenge of finding his followers a new homeland.
Accompanying the leader is an entourage that makes for perfectly agreeable company (it beats the damn Hobbits by a long shot, anyway, if not quite measuring up to the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion): Among others, there’s the funny and touching former zoo monkey Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), the boss’ right-hand Rocket (Terry Notary), the boss’ conscience Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval) and little Nova (Amiah Miller), a sweet blonde human girl who looks like she’s just stepped out of a fairy tale.
But the group’s journey leads not to an Oz but someplace much closer to the heart of darkness, complete with its own Kurtz in the form of another shaven-headed American colonel (an outstanding Woody Harrelson) with his own twisted philosophical bent. The Colonel is leading what he regards as a holy war and runs what can only be called a concentration camp, one filled with captured apes who are worked hard on no food or drink. The man is unquestionably a fanatic, but understandably so: Who wouldn’t be, with his race’s existence evidently hanging in the balance?
The moral issues, and the arguable legitimacy of everyone’s assorted causes, keep piling up, and one of the great merits of the screenplay by Mark Bomback, who co-wrote the previous entry and shares credit on this one with Reeves, is that it takes all the characters’ views, grievances and aspirations seriously; although investment in Caesar’s and the apes’ cause is assumed and tacitly encouraged, the film doesn’t insist that they are right and everyone else is intrinsically evil. As a great film from nearly 80 years ago (Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game) posited, everyone has their reasons, and the fact that a genre entry of this nature, with no intrinsic need of being philosophically nuanced, goes out of its way to endow even its ostensible villains with comprehensible motives rates as a notable achievement.
This nervy moderation of stark good-and-evil extremes does serve to reduce the purely emotional, yee-haw, kick-ass aspect of the finale, which in turn somewhat diminishes the climax’s purely visceral impact. In the moment, this does produce a “soft” ending rather than an immediately cathartic one. But even from a short distance, the more complex wrap-up warmly enriches the work by endowing it with more weight and seriousness.
As before, the drama is graced with “human” moments that deepen the emotions and sweep the audience up in the action. Given that Caesar, the first “humanized” ape, is among the precious few who can speak (with Serkis lending him deep vocal tones and fine articulation), the film is heavily subtitled to convey the meaning of the grunting and sign language used by most of the animals to communicate; as in the previous films, the effect is beguiling.
Shot on spectacular locations, mostly in Alberta and British Columbia, despite the California settings, the film is further enhanced by a notably imaginative, out-of-the-ordinary score by Michael Giacchino.
Production company: Chernin Entertainment
Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Karen Konoval, Terry Notary, Michael Adamthwaite, Ty Olsson, Dervy Dalton, Sara Canning, Aleks Paunovic, Amiah Miller
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenwriters: Mark Bombeck, Matt Reeves, based on characters created by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Producers: Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Executive producers: Mary McLaglen, Jenno Topping, Mark Bombeck
Director of photography: Michael Seresin
Production designer: James Chinlund
Costume designer: Melissa Bruning
Music: Michael Giacchino
Editors: William Hoy, Stan Salfas
Senior visual effects supervisor: Joe Letteri
Visual effects supervisor: Dan Lemmon
Casting: Debra Zane
Rated PG-13, 140 minutes