'War for the Planet of the Apes' - Review - Chris at the Pictures

Thursday, 20 July 2017

'War for the Planet of the Apes' - Review

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Matt Reeves’ concluding chapter to one of the finest series of the decade is a work of such staunch drama and allegory that a more apt title might be The Passion of the Apes. The film begins fifteen years after the first outbreak of the simian flu that all-but wiped out humanity and enhanced the intelligence of Earth’s ape population. What remains of mankind has become radicalised against their evolutionary superiors, whilst Caesar (the ever-incomparable Andy Serkis) still fights to retain peace for his kind. After an early encounter by a zealous Colonel (Woody Harrelson) the apes flee their hiding spot for pastures new. A vengeful Caesar, accompanied by the conscientious orangutan, Maurice, and a mute human girl they find along the way, heads for a final confrontation with the military.

For a title prefixed by War, there’s not a great deal of fighting in the film. The movie is bookended by an out-of-control ambush and sequences of snowbound devastation, but the central conflict is a psychological and ideological one. As the series has gained traction and trust with the audience, the spectacle has become muted, with the drama and (not always subtle) political-historical allusions taking centre stage. Even the script (which must reach less than a hundred lines in total) is hushed, with the apes communicating in sign language and Caesar having very little to say to his human foes. Any exposition is tucked into the opening titles, and it’s the haggard Harrelson that does most of the shouting. “So emotional!” an exclamation he screams at Caesar, and one that we echo upon leaving the cinema.

That this approach works for a modern audience at all speaks volumes about the previous films (Rupert Wyatt’s hearty Rise and Reeves’ own Dawn) and their ability to make an audience invest in a cast of not only animals, but entirely digital confections inhabiting a world also containing real humans. Caesar and the apes are not CG action figures placed at the forefront for mere fantastical thrills: they’re characters. As admirable as the efforts of Duncan Jones’ much under-appreciated Warcraft were in trying to forge a connection between us and the non-human Orcs, I never found myself thinking “I’d better not have to watch Durotan die with my own two eyes, I swear to god”. In War, this exact sentiment emerged constantly with regards to Maurice, Caesar and even Bad Ape, a new character played with impeccable energy and comic timing by Steve Zahn.

I know everyone's already made the comment about Serkis’ lack of awards to the point where it’s harder to find people who don’t think he deserves some kind of official recognition, but seriously, this is getting silly now. There are moments in War where Caesar’s face is so flawlessly rendered, so bristling with scars, matted hair and dried blood (and so close to the camera), one can practically feel his breath. There’s no pointy-pointy 3D (though the film is available in stereoscopic format), just years of painstaking technological development and an actor of such strength that his ferocity and anguish shine through layer-upon-layer of pixel power.

Caesar’s pain and regret are mainstays of the film (if you haven’t gathered thus far, this isn’t a bombastic romp of an action movie), and their resolution may feel a tad clichéd to some. It’s an easily forgivable misstep given everything else War has given us (empathetic characters, stunning visuals, jaw-dropping visual effects, considered pacing, emotional investment). Oh, and that stuff I said in my Spider-Man: Homecoming review about Michael Giacchino’s apparent fatigue of late? Forget it. His score for War contains maybe the most staggering cue he’s ever composed. 

The closing moments do tread a thin line between appropriate and predictable, but do so with grace and maturity, presenting a glorious finale that provides a bang (like Rise) and whimper (like Dawn) combo that, in the same magnificent instant, call to mind David Attenborough and David Lean.