Its conclusion is obviously less than a month old and there’s the test of time by which I swear most of my movie opinions on and I’ve clearly always been high on the hype before there was even a final chapter being filmed, but I still have no qualms in making the hyperbolic statement that the prequel/reboot trilogy of films for the famous Planet of the Apes franchise – 2011’s Rise of, 2014’s Dawn of, and now 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes – are the best popcorn movie franchise of the decade, possibly of the century (the only real competitors for that title is Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the Bourne franchise and they’re both hindered by their most recent installments because disappointingly weak). They are surprisingly intelligent enough to trust their audience, they give such dignity to the characters inhabiting the roles to make the drama feel full of weight in the present tense rather than reminding us of what’s going to happen in the main franchise, and this is all done partly thanks to the very tippity top state of the art effects working so wonderfully in fleshing out our central characters in this film that, when we sink right into the story of escaped Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his clan’s struggles to find a safe haven for them in the midst of the human’s killing each other out, we’re not really registering that we’re looking at digital air. We’re witnessing full-grown beings with their own emotions and inner commentary.
So, a full-on salute to both Serkis’ always incredible work as an actor inhabiting CGI characters, for his translated physicality and the subtle expressiveness of his face, playing just a powerful emotional anchor before the work of Weta Digital, which has evolved long since its early days with Serkis embodying Gollum, has provided us with no just Caesar as a compelling and emotive protagonist against heavy odds, but a whole damn race of apes with their own distinctive personalities (again with the help of a game cast) largely expressed in their physical wear and their gestures. I don’t believe Lake (Sara Canning) has more than maybe 15 minutes of screentime but she’s recognizable enough that there’s a good hour between when we leave her in the first act – as Caesar and others leave the main Ape tribe to seek vengeance against the militaristic humans who threaten to exterminate them – and when we see her again for the third act. And she’s just a new character, that’s saying nothing of the ones we already knew since Rise, like the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the loyal and weary chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), and the tough and brave gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). All three accompany Caesar on his quest to find the deranged Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who hunted for the tribe and left enough damage to have Caesar seeing red.
It’s also mostly thanks to the fact that director-writer Matt Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback (both returning from Dawn) know well enough the characters that producers (and former writers) Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver created in Rise to cash in on all of the emotional attachment we’ve invested in the characters and their quest to find peace in a world that devolved into chaos because of their sudden existence. This is a movie where the cost of their struggles starts to take a toll on Caesar in particular and it crushes War for the Planet of the Apes with a feeling of cold devastation, accented visually by a harsh white and blue palette provided by cinematographer Michael Seresin. It’s a landscape of winter suffering and often does Caesar and his friends’ journey end up with a checkpoint where they have to kill or watch somebody be killed from afar, abandoned to die in the uncaring landscape, a matter that begins to does not mix with Caesar’s desire for vengeance for the better and informs the character study that War for the Planet of the Apes becomes for most of its first half.
Aye, there is indeed a clear difference between the first and second half and that comes when they find the base of the Alpha-Omega faction that the Colonel leads (with the help of a sadly traumatized talking chimpanzee named Bad Ape played by the comedic Steve Zahn to try to translate as much of that character into levity without undercutting the sobriety of the film) and the movie becomes much better than the sometimes meandering preceding hour for it. The movie turns into a prisoner of war escape drama of the likes of The Bridge on the River Kwai – Pierre Boulle wrote the source novels for both Bridge and the original Planet of the Apes so that connection had to come eventually – and a battle of wills and motivations in the face of violent conflict and war, most especially aided by Harrelson giving the exact sort of performance I WISH with all my heart Marlon Brando had given in Apocalypse Now, espousing all his fatalistic attitudes on war and mercy in an attempt to psychologically breakdown Caesar and his role as a leader. It’s a frighteningly present embodiment of soldier psychology put on Circus Maximus and also a deft ability to turn an exposition dump of a role to a formidable antagonist.
But the second half’s also where Michael Giacchino shines in his orchestrations, gleefully evoking all the epicness of this grand finale to Caesar’s fateful journey. And before then, Giacchino is a boon to reminding us that this is bombastic effects heavy popcorn drama, not bogging us down in its misery. Giacchino’s presence helps make a dark movie so palatable and coaxes Reeves and all by earning the very optimistic final note that War for the Planet of the Apes leaves us on with all the finality that the movie already implied. Because sometimes the most entertaining movie can be the one that treats its characters and their efforts with dignity and that dignity that translates to the Planet of the Apes preboot trilogy is only its own reward.