“War for the Planet of the Apes” Movie Review


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     Capping off what now has to be considered one of the greatest and most thought provoking film trilogies ever, director Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” capitalizes on the existing narrative supplied by the previous two installments and effectively brings the story to a satisfying conclusion.  The series is a prime example of how advances in film technology can be properly utilized to enhance a film whose story, characters, and dialogue were put first in order to ensure the foundation for quality was already there.  This isn’t merely eye candy in other words, nor is it the typical humans in ape make up that made the 1970s “Ape” films a fixture in popular culture.  Reeves has created a world made possible by the same techniques that brought us films like James Cameron’s “Avatar” and beloved characters such as Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.  And through the experience of that character, it should come as no surprise that the man who serves as the cornerstone of the “Apes” trilogy is none other than Andy Serkis, who again brings the ape’s leader, Caesar, to new multilayered heights.

     With 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” serving as the origin story, we learned of an experimental drug originally meant as a possible cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, which in turn created a race of apes whose cognitive abilities would eventually rival that of humans.  Caesar is seen as an infant and is raised by the scientist who created the drug, Will Rodman (James Franco), growing into an adult ape who develops the ability to speak.  The unfortunate side effect of the drug; however, is revealed when humans are found to have a fatal reaction that ultimately decimates the human race, leaving only those who are immune as the planet’s lone remaining survivors.  

     2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” picks up a short time later, where humans struggle for survival and blame the apes for their demise, dubbing the virus the “Simian Flu”.  Caesar is the clear leader of the ape’s domain, nestled deep in the forest outside of San Francisco, but is consistently dealing with his own problems, as there are apes within his charge who hate humans and are of the belief they should strike first and eliminate the few humans who are left, rather than allow the humans to someday do the same.  One of those factions, led by an ape named Koba, betrays Caesar and initiates war against the humans.  The aftermath of which sets up “War for the Planet of the Apes”, where military units have been dispatched to hunt and eliminate the apes for good.  A move the humans view as a means to preserve their dominance of the planet.

     To dismiss this trilogy as a knock off of the previous films or as a simple war film would be selling short what the filmmakers have accomplished here.  While “Rise” focused primarily on the human component of the story, and “Dawn” focused on both the human and ape dynamic, “War” is comprised almost exclusively of the apes.  Because of the rich storytelling in the first two installments, “War” has the benefit of fully developed ape characters, who now function in their intelligence much the same way as humans do.  Through digital effects wizardry, Andy Serkis and the other motion capture performers are encased in ape likenesses so realistic that there is never a moment where the audience would think they are not looking at something completely authentic.  In essence, the apes are a creation similar to what was done with the Na’vi in “Avatar”, but are significantly more grounded in reality, even when considering this is a science fiction film as well.  Regardless of what’s ahead this year, how can one imagine “War” not being the winner of the Visual Effects Oscar at next year’s Academy Awards?

     And speaking of Academy Awards, there were rumblings in 2014, reference Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar in “Dawn”, where insiders were beginning to conclude motion capture performances should be considered for acting nominations.  Serkis’ performance in “War” brings  the art of motion capture to an entirely different level.  Not only is Serkis and the other actors physically performing, but they are also acting out each and every facial expression, as well as voicing the characters.  I don't want to say they have brought a human quality to the performances, because that wouldn't be accurate.  Instead, they have embodied characters with multiple layers all their own, each with distinct traits and personalities unlike anything that has ever been on screen before.  The acting achievements here cannot be understated, and even an actor as powerful as Woody Harrelson, who appears in a supporting role as ruthless military dictator, is completely overshadowed by the raw and genuine emotion evoked by the ape characters.

     Certainly, there are a number of racial undertones within the story and in some ways, the narrative serves as a sort of social commentary for our society and how some see it currently constructed.  But to break a brilliant film like “War” down in order to draw some long winded comparison to our country’s present day issues would be a disservice to the many talented people who worked on the “Apes” trilogy.  Instead, we should look at these three films as a shining example of the proper way to create content that involves CGI effects.  Reeves knows the visual aspect will only take you so far, and it is the substance within the script and the characters that will truly make your film special.  “War for the Planet of the Apes” exemplifies this concept in every way, making it one of the best films of the year.  GRADE: A