Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

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The latest installment is still incredible to look at, but feels a little directionless and even anti-climatic compared to the incredible Dawn that preceded it.

Set fifteen years after the rise of intelligent ape kind, War follows Caesar and his growing tribe of apes as they try to escape a ruthless human colonel who wants to exterminate all of them.

In terms of anticipation, War for the Planet of the Apes is following an extremely well made series of films and is potentially leading into one of the classics of 1960s science fiction. There’s a lot riding on this. A little bit like watching a gorilla riding a horse.

The movie is a surprisingly somber, muted affair at times. While Caesar and a select few apes can talk, most of them communicate through sign language, making the film’s bold choice of taking the perspective of the apes a challenging one. It is to be expected, as humanity is slowly whittled away, that the apes would take centre stage; Rise was a human centric movie, Dawn was a mix of both, and finally War is showing that humanity is on its last legs.
So there are moments of little-to-no dialogue as we see Caesar and his family, mostly following on from Dawn‘s narrative (if you are unfamiliar with the characters you may find yourself a little lost with all the monkey sign-language). But the tranquility is shattered very early on; Caesar’s tribe is attacked by the Colonel’s forces (the Colonel played by Woody Harrelson) and his mate and eldest son are killed.
War‘s primary focus is Caesar; he is emotionally compromised throughout the entire film as he seeks vengeance and experiences nightmares of Koba (Dawn‘s incredible ape villain) while his comrades try to protect him from himself. Caesar is the reason to watch this film; coupled with the frankly spectacular visual effects, this character is more real than ever. It is like watching real characters, the way they move and the way they emote is utterly seamless, it is incredible visual effects and animation!

While of course the film, and now the trilogy, would focus on Caesar and Andy Serkis’ awesome motion capture performance, the film lacks the pathos and escalation of the previous two films. This mostly stems from its narrative following the apes’ perspective and the surprisingly vague human motivation.
Woody Harrelson is good as a troubled antagonist, especially in one key scene later in the film, but this so called “war” quickly feels more like a skirmish. There’s no real sense of impending global doom for humanity, no sense of whether or not Harrelson’s garrison of monkey killers are one of the last bastions of humanity. Outside of the Colonel’s own biased belief of course. Indeed, the bigger picture is missing, as is a Koba-like character to muddy the morality of both sides. This is compounded when a second faction of humans join the fray, heralding from somewhere “north”, suggesting other humans in greater numbers exist. So the film doesn’t feel as climactic as it should.
Dawn‘s final shot of Jason Clarke sinking into the shadows, irrelevant to the victorious apes, had more gravitas and finality than this entire film.

Emotions run high for Caesar, the film certainly gives him a hard time, but between that, a human girl accompanying them, a comic relief side character, plot conveniences, vague human motivations, and apes more on the run than participating, the film feels narratively fractured.

As a film it felt more like The Great Ape Escape than the war that will end a species. While certainly there is more to come, this third part – despite its incredible visuals and challenging somber tone for a blockbuster – left me wanting.

Perhaps I am the victim of false marketing; the trailer does portray a film with huge, Earth-shaking battles when in reality it is anything but, and maybe anticipation was just too high!

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Additional Marshmallows: File under “Works as part of a Trilogy”, with such films as The Bourne Supremacy and The Girl who Kicked the Hornets Nest. Most of the credit goes towards the spectacular animation work.

[No misguiding trailer for you!]

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