War for the Planet of the Apes review – this is not a war movie, it’s a character study

Paul Klein

Perhaps there’s an ape actors union out there, one that has twenty or so clients that play apes of various species in big budget blockbusters. Naturally their union head is Andy Serkis, having experience as the mighty Kong (a gorilla) in Peter Jackson’s King Kong and Caesar (a chimp) in the trilogy of Ape prequels. Oddly enough this year’s Kong reboot Skull Island featured Dawn/War alumni Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell. Moreover, there’s a comparison between Skull Island’s references to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and the various references and plot inspiration in its real life War.

Two years on from Koba’s betrayal of Caesar and his fracturing of the possible peace between apes and man, War for the Planet of the Apes Caesar living as a near mythic figure. When a rogue squad of soldiers called Alpha Omega storm his waterfall fortress, tragedy leads Caesar to swear revenge on their enigmatic leader, The Colonel.

The rebooted series of Apes films have always been noted for their nuance and subtlety, talking about contemporary issues that befall our world, portrayed to extremes in theirs. In this third entry it’s about the gulf that comes between two different groups and how that can manifest itself in personal vendettas. The plot has the writ large Apocalypse Now parallel of a lone figure taking on a band of peers to hunt down a Colonel who has brainwashed several of his enemies numbers into viewing him as a god.

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Andy Serkis returns as Caesar

Director Matt Reeves has actually managed to do something that few others have; he’s taken the reigns of a franchise and doubled down on the good, and left the bad. Of course it helps that Andy Serkis is a master of the performance capture art form and this is his strongest performance to date. It’s not just that he walks like an ape, but that his vocal and facial performance is one of the best given this year so far. It’s not just a special effect, it’s a fully fledged performance and he deserves Oscar glory for his incredible work in this film.

There are also other great performances around Serkis: Terry Notary is very good as Rocket, his trusted friend, and Karin Konoval does great as adviser orangutan Maurice. The trio give their best performances in the series thus far, and make for a sort of team of great characters to invest in. When it comes to the new characters most of the praise has to be given to Steve Zahn as comic foil Bad Ape, the only other English talking ape, and someone who takes chapter three into the comic arena, doing better than most part threes by actually having levity, while Amiah Miller as mute girl orphan Nova is brilliant, managing to find her way in the world and provides the heart of the film.

There is a struggle in the film, and it comes fairly obviously when Woody Harrelson’s Colonel shows up. Clearly influenced by the Kurtz figure, he’s the next in a long line of bad humans in the series. From Ape Enclosure owner Brian Cox in Rise, to anti-ape leader Dreyfuss in Dawn, Harrelson’s character isn’t seen in the film much, but when he appears in his mountain base lair it’s an interesting ride. The character has the hint of a moral spectrum but the movie never really allows for him to be compelling, and while the moral centre is still Caesar, there is very little focus on the humans and their conflict. It’s odd that a film with war in its title has so little in it; it’s much more a journey into Caesar’s own turmoil, despite a third of the film being a strange concentration camp allegory. By the time the soldiers make their first proper appearance, there’s very little to be done in terms of fleshing out their roles.

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Woody Harrelson portrays the Colonel, pitted against Caesar.

There is a comparison to be made between what this film does and what Logan did earlier this year: both feature a near mythic leader, tired from their life, finding a silent girl and fighting a sunglasses clad leader on a boarder. What sets the films it apart is that while Logan took away the comic elements and doubled down of serious elements, this one incorporates more humour: pratfalls and poo jokes aplenty, with most of the humour coming from Zahn’s wildly loveable Bad Ape.

The film also has the problem that there just aren’t any decent roles for the women. While Konoval is a franchise staple, she plays a male ape, and while Miller’s Nova is a girl, she isn’t much of a plot point despite showing hope. There’s an active move away from previous entries, and this is a boy’s own affair. Perhaps the film would have been a bit more interesting if The Colonel was a woman, but this war actually has almost no humans.

If the film manages to soar it’s in the depths of the human condition, as it looks at what drives us as a species, even through the eyes of apes. Searches is clearly on awards worthy form and the end gives to the viewer what the viewer takes from the film. But, be warned that this is not a war movie, it’s a character study, and in that, the title is a little bit of a tease. Then again, it’s unlikely that Mining the Depths of the Human Condition of the Planet of the Apes would fit on a poster, let alone sell tickets.

Come awards season, we may very well be arguing that a bunch of people running around in leotards pretending to be monkeys deserves a slice of the awards glory. Apes together… very strong.

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