“Just how in the world are they going to end it?”
That was my biggest question and concern going into War for the Planet of the Apes, the third film in the prequel series that caught audiences off guard starting in the late-2000s. Would this third film continue the strong trend stared by the first two, or would this be another case of a third film falling short?
Related to that, my eyes were firmly planted on the scale of this film. The first two films were so deeply personal and character-focused, that there was a valid concern that this would be the one where things went off the rails and went “epic.” There are many words to describe this prequel series, and “epic” is surely not one of them, for better or worse.
Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything for you, but I think it’s important to lay out the questions I had going into this movie. It certainly has big shoes to fill, and given 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was my favorite film that year, I was fearful this would be a bit of a letdown.
So was it any good? Yes, the film was good, and dare I say great. But before we delve into that, let’s set up the premise.
Fifteen years have now passed since the apes first escaped San Francisco. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are hiding in a forest, hoping to ride out this prolonged conflict with man. When they are attacked by the Colonel, played by Woody Harrelson. In the aftermath of the surprise ambush, Caesar finds several of his companions fallen in battle. His whole live, he’s resisted the urge to paint all man as evil and engage in all-out war, but in this case, the Colonel made it personal. Caesar decides to track down the Colonel at his base and put an end to things once and for all.
There’s one word that I kept coming back to in my head when watching that, and that’s “confidence.” The film was by no means perfect (though it's close), but it was written and directed with such confidence that it was hard not to admire. The performances were just as nuanced and affecting as they’ve ever been (seriously, Serkis deserves an Oscar nomination for this one at least), the story is primal and personal, and the visuals are damn near perfectly blended into the real world, that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a bunch of CG. A less confident director would have gone bigger in the performances, the stakes, and the scope, but with this film, director Matt Reeves comes across as so amazingly steady-handed at his job, that it’s hard not to get excited for what he’ll bring to the table for The Batman.
Screenplay duties for War were shared between Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves. On the heels of a film like Transformers: The Last Knight, the juxtaposition is ever-present. One is big, bombastic, and hollow, and one is grim and personal. It’s that last word, I want to focus on here: “personal.” With most trilogies, by the end, everything seems to culminate in a battle that puts everything on the line. This is a film that has the confidence not to do that. Sure, thematically, everything's on the line, but It keeps things very personal — focusing more than ever on Caesar’s wavering patience with the humans. It’s a completion of his personal journey that stared with Rise, and while most filmmakers (and studios) would feel the pressure to wrap everything up and amplify the blockbuster aspect, War is content to tell the most affecting story any good drama can — albeit on a higher budget.
As mentioned above, the performances continue to be strong, but with the ever-increasing impressiveness of the visual effects, the skin surrounding the performances (in the form of apes) have only helped to add nuance to this personal story. The cast, which consist of Andy Serkis, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, and Alessandro Juliani (among others), have truly disappeared into their respective roles. The ability to more specifically track facial features allowed this movie to get even more subtle with the performances, which was pretty amazing given how great they were in the last film. Additionally, I found myself completely in awe that these apes on screen weren't the real deal
I’d be remiss not to mention Woody Harrelson here. His take on the Colonel is wonderfully detestable. He’s a full-on bad dude, but not one without purpose. There’s a rhyme and reason behind his action and cold-blooded attitude, and I had no difficulty in understanding why those around him followed his lead. Yet despite the big nature of the character, Harrelson’s performance — like the rest of those in this film — is wonderfully understated. He doesn’t yell, and he isn’t cartoonish in his personality. This is truly a man who is doing his best in the circumstances given, and has grown callous beyond repair.
If there was a weakness that this film had, it may lie within the script. Yes, I know. I already praised the script, and no, there was nothing “wrong” with the script, per sé. The dialogue was great, the structure was sound, every scene had its place, and I very much admired its desire to keep the scope of the thing small (it may very well have a smaller scope than the previous film), but its pacing stuck out to me like sore thumb. While I admire Reeves’ desire and ability to linger on the performances, I found myself looking at my watch more than a couple times throughout this two hours and 15 minute romp through the snow. I can’t necessarily pinpoint a specific scene or segment of the film at which things dragged, but it may have just been a case of trimming a bit throughout the film. That being said, there is something to be said for the flick’s meditative pacing, and it brought with it some truly impactful quiet moments that would have otherwise not been possible. I suppose there’s always a bit of a give and take with things like these. But for me, I found myself fidgeting a bit throughout — which isn’t something I felt with the previous two.
All in all, I think Reeves has put together an overall strong ending to an amazing science fiction trilogy — perhaps one of the greatest. While it doesn’t quite stick the landing perfectly for me in terms of entertainment (I still prefer Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) , I’d never argue with someone who walked away thinking this was their favorite film in the series. There’s a lot to like here for both fans of filmmaking, and fans of the franchise. Reeves, we can’t wait to see what magic you work on The Batman.
What do you think? Will you be seeing War for the Planet of the Apes? Let us know your thoughts down below!