Film Review: War For The Planet Of The Apes (M, USA, 2017) complements and completes the Apes trilogy perfectly

In the third and final film of the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy, we pick up not long after where the previous film left off. The apes are here to stay and it’s only when they come up against a battalion of soldiers that the tentative truce between humans and apes is destroyed and it sends all those affected into full blown war between species. The film takes sci-fi themes and elements, and blends it with the emotional journey of the ape leader and hero Caesar to bring a riveting film that complements and completes the trilogy perfectly.

The film begins with some introductory exposition text onscreen and reminds us of the order of the films, just in case you’d forgotten, or like me repeatedly get the order confused, the trilogy began with RISE, then there was DAWN, and now it’s WAR. In War For The Planet Of The Apes we return to Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his ever expanding populace of apes. They basically want to be left alone to live in the forest, but when a small battalion of soldiers attacks Caesar’s stronghold, the brutality of war hits him in the most personal of ways. Left reeling from loss he spirals into a dark psychological place, battling with himself and his belief in honour but also fuelled by rage and vengeance. Caesar also comes up against one of his most challenging foes yet in The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a man intent on seeing all the apes wiped out in order to save what is left of the human race. In a winner-takes-all stakes, there will only be one victor in this war, and Caesar must defeat his own demons, both human and mental, in order to save the apes.

This entire trilogy has always focused on Caesar as the main character, and has been about his journey. Starting from an orphaned chimp and unlikely hero to the apes, to a compassionate strategic leader attempting to balance his morals with the greater good, and now in this film to be tested and challenged psychologically and to overcome all of the adversities to be the ultimate leader for the apes. Directed by Matt Reeves and written by Reeves and Mark Bomback (both of whom worked on Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes), they push the character of Caesar into a territory where the once morally steady ape is now riddled with hatred and questioning his ability to think rationally, and in turn be a true leader. Whether it’s intentional or not, his character comes across as a not so subtle allegory for a religious figure – his subjects bowing to him as he walks past, betrayal by one of his ape colleagues, the symbolism of Caesar tied to an X like cross, and leading the apes out of turmoil into a new promised land of hope. Not to mention plenty of historical war infused iconography like the prisoner of war labour camp and ramshackle trenches and forts. Where the earlier films looked at social and racist (or speciesist) commentary, this instead prefers to have a robust cerebral commentary.

King of motion capture Andy Serkis deserves an award for his performance, not just in this film but across the entire trilogy. The evolution of this character has been a true journey and its Serkis’ performance that has brought the character to life. And it’s not just the physical movements but getting to see a darker, psychologically twisted side to Caesar that shows Serkis’ true ability and skill as an actor. Here the motion capture CGI gets even more detailed as we get far more facial closeups of our hero as we see him grappling with grief, anger, rage and determination and a whole slew of emotions all there in high definition digital.

Joining Serkis in the ape camp is Karin Konoval as Maurice, the orangutan that has consistently helped Caesar stay on the right moral track. Whilst Steve Zahn joins the cast as new character Bad Ape, a chimp Caesar happens to find that has taught himself the ability to speak after escaping a zoo. Even though he plays the obvious comedic relief, it’s a welcome respite from all the seriousness and helps to break up some of the extremely tense moments in the film. The notable Woody Harrelson playing the antagonistic nefarious Colonel, uses all of his physicality and charisma and is captivating when he’s onscreen, even when he’s not saying anything and just staring down Caesar. Adding to the human cast was also the young Amiah Miller who plays a mute young girl taken in by Maurice and Caesar and becomes the key to bridging the divide between apes and humans in the future.

Much of this film though relies heavily on the geniuses at Weta Digital, the team behind all the performance and motion capture used in the entire Apes trilogy. From 2014 to now there have been continuing advances in the technology enabling each film to get better and better. Going from being contained within a soundstage to now being able to physically record the performances outside. The post production CGI is now so photo realistic that these apes and their habitat look 100% real and believable. This included advancements in organic forest growth software known as Totara and also WETA’s own advanced fur system software that enhances the complexity, texture and interaction of that digital fur with the environment. With an atmospheric musical score provided by Michael Giacchino that fills in much of the silence onscreen due to the characters not speaking and using sign language to communicate.

War For The Planet Of The Apes perfectly complements and completes the Apes trilogy. With a captivating and stellar performance by Andy Serkis, we are taken to the emotional and psychological edge of heroic Caesar and shown just how far he has come as well as how far he will go. This is a film that challenges the usual homogenised sci-fi films by adding a strong beating heart to its lead character that is earned and we as an audience are well rewarded.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 140 minutes

War For The Planet Of The Apes screens in Australian cinemas from today through 20th Century Fox Pictures Australia.