Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn

Director: Matt Reeves

Running Time: 140 mins

Synopsis: Two years have passed since the events of Dawn and ape leader Caesar (Serkis) is fighting a brutal war against the last remnants of humanity led by a deranged Colonel (Harrelson). Suffering a tremendous loss by the Colonel’s own hands, Caesar ventures out to seek revenge, putting the future of his ape society at risk. 

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It’s all in the eyes! Any director worth his salt knows this fact. Take an expressive gifted actor, focus your lens on his/her face and let the magic flow. It is the thrust behind all human connectivity, our eyes the window to our true intentions no matter what is said or done. This is something that director Matt Reeves (returning here after his phenomenal work on predecessor Dawn) understands unequivocally, and in a move you would not expect from a $100 million blockbuster he places most of War (I will shorten the title for sake of brevity) in a deep close up on his ape and human characters. Despite the continued use of sign language as the main form of communication for the apes Reeves routinely avoids showing the gesticulation in favour of those ever expressive eyes. It is a ballsy move in a film filled with them, and is indicative of not only the films’ intent, that character comes before spectacle, but of just how far CGI has come.

Even just a few years ago, the thought of spending a great deal of camera time honed in on eyes belonging to computer generated characters would be scoffed at. Frequent criticism levelled at motion-capture films (Polar Express, Avatar etc.) usually came down to the glassy nature of their expressions, eyes filled with eerie stillness rather than emotive activity. Primarily thanks to the work of WETA and mo-cap trailblazer Andy Serkis, the barrier has slowly broken down to the point where Reeves has the confidence to deliver something like War. The craft and artistry of the effect work here is breathtaking, so much so that you stop spouting “wow” after the first 5 mins and let the drama soak in. Building on the use of naturalistic environments in Dawn, Reeves goes one step further here stretching his palate into snow-covered mountains, baking deserts and sandy beaches. It graces the film with an earthy vibe, one that provides an epic backdrop for what it is a surprisingly internal journey.

Yes, it definitely helps that the geniuses at WETA have nailed those close-ups because despite the brashly operatic nature of the title this is very much a War for the soul rather than any sort of overblown battle heavy picture. Now this may put off those viewers expecting a repeat of Dawn’s latter day action set-pieces, but as befits a trilogy that for the most part prides intelligence over such broad action brushstrokes War is comfortable within its own skin to strive for something grander. The film certainly opens with a bang, as a quietly brooding sequence builds centring on an Army attack on one of Caesar’s strongholds. Immediately we get a sense of Reeves’s ability to build suspense, with a throbbing score (more on Michael Giacchino’s sterling work later) and striking shot construction building us up before the inevitable release of open warfare. You see it has been two years since rebel ape Koba stirred an uprising and attempted to enslave humanity in Dawn, and now the humans, in the form of an Army faction, have made it their mission to wipe them from the face of the Earth. This group is being led by the deranged Colonel (his name is fleetingly mentioned), and nobody plays deranged better than Woody Harrelson.

Deranged he may well be, but Harrelson (as well as the thoughtful script) finds unexpected paths to help form his character into someone tragic and understandable. These are some of the last remnants of humanity, and with that comes fear, rage and desperation. All of which Harrelson displays in a performance that is gripping throughout. Now don’t get me wrong he does some heinous things during the film, but a mid-film monologue flips things on its head, resulting in a newfound appreciation of how dire their situation has become. This scene is also notable for being a dexterous display of combining large amounts of exposition with emotional grace notes and lashings of tension. Without spoiling, the outcome for his character is beautifully unexpected and underplayed.

Of course though this is Caesar’s film and Andy Serkis delivers a ferocious performance for the ages. Aged and mournful, we find Caesar as he approaches near mythic status amongst the apes and humans. Haunted by visions of Koba, here representing his guilt at not only killing his fellow ape but the potential for Caesar himself to become wrapped up in hatred. This hatred and the driving thrust of the film comes from a monstrous attack on Caesar’s home, leaving him with a personal vendetta against the callous Colonel. Deciding to leave his fellow apes to seek out a new home, he ventures out to track down the Colonel’s base. If the bald headed Colonel and the “Ape-pocalypse Now” graffiti are not enough of an indication then the plot cements it fully as to the real influences on this film. Caesar, accompanied by 3 loyal companions including lovable orangutan Maurice, is on a “upriver” mission, as it were, into the Heart of Darkness. Their journey taking in death, pain, and thanks to Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape a much needed slice of levity. Stumbling upon him hiding in the wilderness, Bad Ape (as he endearingly calls himself) surprises Caesar with his ability to speak despite no exposure to the virus that triggered his intelligence. Cowardly, sheepish and lovable Zahn plays Bad Ape with a lightness that is more than welcome when the bleak themes begin to potentially overwhelm proceedings.

Not since Christopher Nolan’s Bat films has a summer blockbuster dealt with such adult themes. Rise and Dawn both had their fair share of deeper harsher story beats, but War trumps them both with a plot rife with dark morally dubious complexity. Torture, death and pain are so prevalent here that I’d probably advise any parent thinking of taking their child to see the “cute talking monkeys” avoid so as not to induce the need for trauma therapy. Reeves, like Nolan, knows how to control these potentially overbearing themes with a craftsmanship that is painstaking, detailed and captivating. He conjures up scenes of real emotional heft, that belie the fact that most concern talking apes, no doubt helped by his phenomenal mo-cap cast. Terry Notary, the aforementioned Zahn, and notably Karin Konoval as Maurice deliver nuanced physically adept performances. Konoval once again gracing Maurice with a humane warmth that envelops those around him and us as the audience. This is felt most keenly in the adopted human child the journeying apes take in. A wisp of a girl, Nova cannot speak (due to reasons that become more pertinent as the film goes on) and represents an innocence that slowly thaws the rage-filled Caesar. Amiah Miller gives an emotive gentle performance, in a year filled with great child performers.

This is above all else though Caesar’s film and Andy Serkis goes hell for leather. Full of anger, exhaustion, ferocity, Serkis is award-worthy here. His eyes, as I said we spend alot of time almost falling into them, are awash with such expression, such soul it devastates you to witness what he goes through here. Across these three films there has been perhaps no better arc for any character outside of the small screen. Rise detailing the innocence and primal instincts battling against Caesar’s human proclivities before Dawn tackled the responsibility of leadership, now landing at what all trilogy closers tend to focus on, legacy and the nature of consequence. It is testament to WETA and Serkis’s work that there is a tangible believability to all of this, your mind never once doubting that Caesar is a living, breathing creature.

If Serkis is MVP number one, and WETA MVP number two, without a doubt Matt Reeves is a close bronze medallist. He has a control and confidence that is a sight to behold, never afraid to take the sombre choice, unafraid to gift his audience with intellectual meat to chew on. Although never too pretentious to forget the joy of seeing a monkey ride a horse whilst shooting a gun. As mentioned set-pieces are refreshingly intimate, with even the large scale battle that closes the film being succinct and rooted in character. Production work is triumphant across the board with particular applause given to Michael Giacchino who here composes possibly one of his best ever scores. Low key, evocative and tender, it ramps up the emotion in a film that is already rife with them. There is some pacing lag, with the film perhaps being a touch too long (the curse of most threequels), and it will be too unremittingly bleak for many in the crowd. But in a world of mind-numbing franchise filmmaking and boisterous action showboating it is heartening to find a film made with passion, intelligence and artistry. One that realises that there is no bigger thrill than what can be found when looking at another’s face. After all it’s all in the eyes.

Verdict: Subdued, sombre and soulful cinema. War for the Planet of the Apes is not afraid to do away with bombastic spectacle in favour of thematic gravitas. A triumphant conclusion to one of the finest trilogies of modern times.

***** 

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