Originally published July 14th, 2017
When was the last time you felt disappointed by a movie you still wound up liking? I can’t recall, personally, though perhaps I could wring out a case for Beatriz at Dinner. The films from this year that I’ve seen come closest to this regard, I currently have compiled in a list of movies that frustrated the hell out of me, and yet I want to see them again. I’m sure I’ve brought up this list at some point, but it includes the likes of Split, A Cure for Wellness, Colossal and Alien: Covenant.
War for the Planet of the Apes doesn’t belong with these flicks for the best of reasons, but I still walked away thinking it could have been something better. Directed by Matt Reeves, also at the helm for the previous installment, this third film in the franchise’s modern reinvigoration sees humanity has, for the most part, left the apes alone in the Muir Woods to live peacefully. A group of humans who take exception to that belong to Alpha Omega, a military unit led by a mysterious Colonel (Woody Harrelson) with his own primal vendetta against the apes. While his tribe makes their escape to the desert, Caesar (Andy Serkis), along with Luca, Rocket and Maurice head to the military’s base to end the war between humans and apes once and for all.
The first half of this film is undeniably phenomenal. Beginning with a brief written rundown of the previous two movies, War opens with human soldiers quietly making their way through the forest toward the ape base for a surprise attack. Backs of soldiers’ helmets read things like ‘Monkey Killer,’ showing the continued divide between both species. This surprise attack makes way for the film’s first set piece, and here we see Matt Reeves’s impeccable understanding of scale. The scene is gripping and fast-paced without requiring choppy editing to emphasize the battle’s chaos and magnitude.
Instead, we’re given immaculately composed frames that may seemingly feature an overwhelming amount of carnage, but instead drag your eyes across the screen with each pop and boom, without forsaking the rest of the mise-en-scène. Returning cinematographer Michael Seresin captures the scope of each of the film’s settings with the sort precision unseen by most blockbusters costing $150 million or more, imbuing a sense of grandeur that doesn’t let each set piece overload the film with pomp and circumstance, but gives each one ample power to excite while remaining comparatively humble to flashier products.
And as always, I’d be remiss if I didn’t start gushing over each and every motion capture performance on display, particularly Serkis’s as Caesar. Variety Awards Editor Kristopher Tapley recently penned an op-ed about why the ‘special achievement Oscar’ ought to be un-shelved for the talented men and women who brought these performances to life either in front of or behind the camera, and honestly, the Academy ought to vindicate his argument. How Serkis and Co. continue to effortlessly dazzle audiences with what seems to be the future in visual effects is nothing short of amazing, as is the sheer level of detail in every facial expression and movement conveyed by the actors.
Counterbalancing the wider angles seen in the film’s action scenes, we predominantly see each ape character depicted in close-ups, giving us an intimate view of weathered faces that non-verbally communicate the horrors and trials of war and hiding. It works in conjunction with the film’s comparatively less nuanced narrative – we’ll get to that – to align us with the ape protagonists and help us feel personally invested in their fight. In the end, we understand Caesar just as Serkis does, and it’s that shared journey between actor and audience that makes these performances, especially his, so compelling.
Thematically, this third film is perhaps the darkest of the reboots, at once recalling the horrors of the past – labor and death camps, in particular – with the potential horrors of the future – using said forced labor to build a wall along a border. The narrative’s central conflict reflects the growing discontent among white supremacist alt-righters that their culture of traditional European and Christian values is slowly being stomped out, and additionally contains its fair share of fascist symbolism, making this Apes addition as socio-politically conscious as the franchise has ever been – whether that was intentional or not is beside the point. But though this realization come the film’s latter half is philosophically timely, it’s part of a slower, less riveting affair that nearly dulls the momentum created before the plot’s midpoint.
The story may never come to a standstill thanks to splendid performances from Serkis and Harrelson, but it feels more conventional compared to Dawn, particularly with its classic war and western movie influences coming into play. And when standing next to Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, Harrelson’s Colonel is a differently compelling villain, certainly, but not as particularly layered. The film’s second half has a solid backbone, but up until the final 20-odd minutes, the direction feels slightly muddled, the screenplay is laced with comedic relief that’s jarringly out of place and the overall product is a little more convention-reliant than its predecessor.
But, what a final 20-odd minutes it is, with enough emotional strength to carry out the picture on a high note. I’d safely say I’ve seen at least five films from this summer, wide release or limited, that I’d place higher in my 2017 rankings, but War is still a pleasurable time at the theater, and certainly one of the better wide release experiences this season. Now, we’ll have to wait until January to see if Reeves, Serkis and the rest of this series’ crew finally get the golden recognition they’ve so greatly deserved.