Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was one of my favorite films of 2014, and most of the same team is back for War. There's two reasons why my first instinct is to doubt the series. One is that "Planet of the Apes" is a silly premise. Despite a respectable history of some good films, the movies always sound a little bit like a B-movie premise. The other reason is more basic. It's like when you watch a juggler add one more ball to the mix. Even though you've been given plenty of reasons to assume he can do it, you still get nervous. Or maybe the tightrope analogy is the better one. Regardless, what Matt Reeves, Andy Serkis, and Fox have going with the Planet of the Apes franchise is impressive, so now I look forward to these movies with nothing but excitement.
I never know how much of the story to give away, especially when the trailers are pretty generic. War continues the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the ape who has been the focus since Rise and is the leader of the apes. He's trying to live peacefully in the woods with his fellow apes, but a nearby army of humans led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) won't leave them alone. Caesar is ready to move far away from the humans, but before he can, the Colonel strikes the ape settlement and makes the stakes very personal for Caesar. From there, the story becomes equal parts revenge story and escape mission. Along the way, Caesar picks up a young girl who can't speak (Amiah Miller) and another ape who can talk (played by Steve Zahn) but isn't all there mentally after year of what sounds like abuse in a zoo.
This is the first film in the series to be fully led by the apes. Rise and Dawn were evenly split between the apes and humans if not more human-centric altogether. In War, Harrelson and the other humans are very much supporting characters. The biggest hurdle the movie has to clear is that only two of the apes speak fluently. The rest use their sign language to communicate. I have to give Matt Reeves and company a lot of credit, because I didn't realize how much of the movie was in subtitles until I thought about it afterwards. That's because dialogue was used judiciously and much was communicated in the physical performances.
Praising Andy Serkis for his motion capture performance in something has become a yearly tradition at this point. I sure hope there's an honorary Oscar in his future, since it's become clear that enough people are never going to recognize him in a competitive category. There's no one on the level of Tony Kebbell in Dawn to match Serkis on the motion capture side, although Karin Konoval, Steve Zahn, Terry Notary, and Ty Olsson all do good work. The motion capture visual effects look great as always. In fact, I don't think I'm giving the effect justice. The fact that the team behind these effects haven't won Oscars for the past two films is embarrassing for the Motion Picture Academy and it will be as well when War loses this year too. Woody Harrelson plays his role very big but somehow stops short of being laughable. That sounds like more of a knock on him than it should. The Colonel fills any room he's in, but he's meant to and has to be that kind of person to lead the group he does.
I love how the film mixes the many larger and smaller stories together. At times the film is like an ape Unbroken. It's also a very personal revenge story for Caesar. There's the larger struggle for the apes to find peace and there's an escape caper going on too. The Colonel is dealing with threats from every side. The simian flu is an evolving threat. Even humans elsewhere aren't fans of him. If it was just the apes, he could win, but he's doomed himself due to enemies coming from every side. Caesar is haunted by Koba as well as other parts of his past. Characters like the little human child they take in, the ape played by Steve Zahn, and Maurice all have arcs of personal significance. Even some lesser villains get some depth that I didn't expect.
I will say that the film relies on convenience a bit more than I like. One bullet early on could've stopped the movie in its tracks, but of course, the Colonel would rather run his outpost like a Bond villain. The security at the Colonel's outpost is a joke. On multiple occasions, even minimal observation by the security would've again, stopped the movie in an instant. That's the kind of stuff that drives me insane and is the only reason why I think I prefer Dawn slightly more.
In a world where every major studio has big budget franchises that get sequel after sequel whether they need them or not, many of the biggest sequels end up major disappointments. This summer has been no different with films like Transformers: The Last Knight, Cars 3, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales being churned out. It's nice to have something as good as War for the Planet of the Apes to remind us that it's still possible to make a great movie under that studio mandate. I hope this is not the end of this iteration of the franchise if it continues to be this good.
After the Credits
(Some thoughts for after you've seen the movie)
The end is full of grace notes that really cemented my love of the movie.
-There wasn't a final showdown with the Colonel. Great! I get how it could seem like a let down, but it's the perfect way for that to play out. A battle between Caesar and the Colonel, locking eyes, surrounded by fire and explosions, would only confirm his belief that he needed to kill the apes. Leaving Caesar's - er - humanity in tact and making the Colonel the victim of his own prejudices is much better.
-There's very little to the character Preacher, but I like how Reeve's subtly tricks us to believing that he's something he isn't Preacher is our POV character in the first scene of the movie. He's present for all sorts of interactions with Caesar and the Colonel. Hell, they even call him Preacher, which make a "come to Jesus" moment seem required. Nope. He shoots Caesar with an arrow the second he gets a chance to. It's not exactly a twist. It's more like Reeves having fun with the audience for buying into narrative conventions.
-That victory moment for the invading troops right before the avalanche wipes them out was so bizarre. The quick charge and celebration of victory. The slow awareness of Caesar staring them down. Then, the whole army is enveloped by the crashing snow. I didn't know if it was funny, horrifying, poetic justice, ex machina, or a cheat, but I liked it.