War for the Planet of the Apes - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review
War for the Planet of the Apes
If any film in the franchise can compete with 1968's Planet of the Apes, it would be 2017's War for the Planet of the Apes. Rare is the third and final entry in a trilogy that proves to not only be a good movie but also the best of the bunch. I don't believe it is an exaggeration to call this film a masterpiece, a thorough exploration of all the moral complexity of the series from the original novel through all of its various adaptations, sequels, and reboots, with an astonishing amount of filmmaking prowess on display from the acting to the effects, to the music, to the cinematography, and to the writing. It could never have the cultural significance of the original film, of course, but in my honest opinion, War for the Planet of the Apes is the superior piece of cinema, an opinion backed up by the fact that it has the highest Rotten Tomatoes score of the entire franchise.
The remarkable thing about the story this time around is that it's not based on any previous film. It takes cues from the novel and the previous films--some more subtle than others--but on the whole, this is a brand-new story built from the ground up to offer a satisfying conclusion to the reboot trilogy. It picks up where the previous film left off, not only in terms of the plot--with a larger military force now encroaching on Caesar and his apes--but also in terms of Caesar's character development. Here is someone who has been pushed to breaking his one cardinal commandment, that "ape shall not kill ape," but who hasn't really had to pay any sort of price for it beyond the price he paid to reach that point.
He begins the story reminiscing about the ape he killed, Koba, and explaining that he underestimated how impossible it was for Koba to forgive humans for what they had done to him. Immediately after that, the leader of the military faction, known only as "The Colonel," in a surprise attack on the apes' secret hideout, murders Caesar's wife and first-born son, leading to Caesar embarking on a suicidal quest for vengeance. He is haunted by Koba and the knowledge that he is going down a similar road, driven by pain and malice, and along the way, he must find a way to reclaim the humanity (for lack of a better word) he had lost when he buried his family.
It's a dark and brooding time for Caesar
The character arc is a slow one, starting with Caesar coming across a newly-orphaned human child he doesn't believe he can save. It is his companion and surrogate heart, Maurice, who saves the child (later named "Nova" in a cute nod to the original movie), and much later in the story, Nova risks her life to save Caesar, reteaching him the critical importance of compassion. In effect, the "war" of the title isn't the one between apes and humans, but rather the inner war for Caesar's soul. Can he move past his grief, learn from his errors, and save his people, or will he devolve into the beast that The Colonel believes him to be?
The climax, therefore, relies on Caesar having The Colonel at his mercy, gun to his head and ready to enact the revenge he has sought the entire time. But rather than pulling the trigger, Caesar for the first time feels compassion for The Colonel and cannot bring himself to end his life. He realizes that The Colonel and the ghost of Koba are his future if he continues down this path, of willingly walking away from his people to chase his passion and rage. He has already witnessed for himself the consequences of his mistakes, and he must reckon with them before finally leading his tribe to safety, after a brief run-in with nature itself, which fights back in a furious avalanche that the apes only survive by virtue of their natural climbing ability.
The ending never fails to elicit teary eyes from me
There is so much thematic meat in this narrative it's difficult to put it aside and discuss the rest of the film. However, I will pause and talk about perhaps the only complaint I can make about the story, one that has only occurred to me after multiple viewings of the film: narrative convenience. One or two instances of coincidence in a narrative--especially well-disguised ones--can be easily forgiven, but there are quite a few of them in War for the Planet of the Apes. For example, Caesar just happens to come across Nova, who would prove to be his salvation, right before just happening to come across Bad Ape, who just happens to have plot information that proves necessary to move the story along. An even bigger example happens at the end of the film, when the invading Northern army just happens to arrive at precisely the same moment that the apes are conducting their Great Escape from The Colonel's border fortress. (This one is especially infuriating, because just a couple of lines of dialogue could solve it: one in which The Colonel says within earshot of Caesar that he expects the attack at dawn and another in which Caesar tells his people that they have to escape before dawn for that very reason.)
Let's talk briefly about the acting, not only from the two stellar highlights--Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson as Caesar and The Colonel, respectively--but also from some of the ancillary characters. Steve Zahn plays Bad Ape, an interesting addition to the primate tribe who lends just enough of a splash of comic relief to keep the film from devolving into a joyless dirge of pain, sorrow, and hopelessness. Also not to be underestimated is Karin Konoval as Maurice, the orangutan who serves as Caesar's desperately needed moral compass. Of course, most of these incredible acting jobs would be lost were it not for the jaw-dropping visual effects, which are so photo-realistic that I am still unable to tell where the actor ends and the CG begins.
This is possibly the most complex role of Harrelson's career, and he hits it out of the park
I also want to talk about Michael Giacchino's music, which like everything else, is the best in the entire franchise save for perhaps the original. (It is all but impossible to beat Goldsmith, as Giacchino has learned more than once now.) There are incredible leitmotifs that play off each other in interesting ways--such as the one that plays for Nova that manages to be full of both childish wonder and deep sadness--combined with more intense music for the action scenes that uses brass and percussion in an even more brutal way than Goldsmith ever did. I usually have a hard time finding words to describe a film score, but the one for War for the Planet of the Apes is right up there on my list of greatest film scores ever written, and I say that without hyperbole.
It does seem as though the franchise will continue, with production on a fourth film scheduled later this year. The general talk about this movie is that it will be in the same continuity as the Caesar trilogy but separate enough to be considered its own thing. Josh Friedman (The Sarah Conner Chronicles, Foundation) is writing, and Matt Reeves does not appear to be involved at this time, seeing as how he currently has his hands full with a certain caped crusader. While I am definitely excited--in case I haven't made myself clear in the last six months, I adore this franchise--I don't envy Friedman the task of following up this particular magnum opus.
-e. magill 3/10/2022
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