Many may be unfamiliar with the 1968 classic, Planet of The Apes, yet it is virtually impossible to not recognise this often-quoted line: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” From The Big Bang Theory to Chris Rock’s Top Five, POTA has been referenced consistently throughout popular culture. And this is a credit to the work of Pierre Boulle (source novelist), writers Michael Wilson and the legendary Rod Serling, in their crafting of a gripping “What if?” sci-fi drama and perhaps the greatest plot twist in cinema history. So how on earth could such rich source material inspire four lacklustre sequels, two failed television series and a laughable remake starring Marky Mark, and directed by…Tim Burton? As the apes depicted within this series evolved (albeit through a prospective miracle drug, ALZ-113) in regards to intellect and other human-like abilities, so must a tired, ancient franchise. And in 2011, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise OTPOTA elevated the summer blockbuster to dizzying heights, delivering a supremely intelligent character-driven drama. Six years on, director Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis reteam for all-out war. But the question is this: With a temptation to prioritise bang-for-your-buck over an emotionally-driven narrative, will War FTPOTA bend the knee to Hollywood?
Haunted by his emotionally scarred and ultimately treacherous lieutenant, Koba, and perpetually pursued by a ruthless army of humans, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of apes are at breaking point. Some have even defected, pledging their allegiance to a colonel (Woody Harrelson) whose draconian tactics would even make Full Metal Jacket’s Sgt. Hartman blush. Following a battle which incurs tragic loses, Caesar’s plans to inherit a newly discovered ‘promised land’ come to a standstill. Instead, he and a small company of trusted apes embark upon a quest, to avenge their kind and ultimately, end the war. Whatever the cost.
Opening with a spectacularly crafted assault on an ape stronghold, War immediately alerts us to the fact that from this point on, mercy will be sparse and bloodshed maximal. As a band of soldiers approach, Reeves and fellow writer Mark Bomback deliberately donate time to focussing on soldiers and their helmets. Some of which feature crudely drawn and abusive graffiti, such as “Monkey killer” and my personal favourite, “The only good Kong, is a dead Kong”. Without characters breathing a word, audiences are informed of how deadly a situation this is, and how each individual is feeling through a variety of claustrophobic close-ups. And once the battle begins, a barrage of bullets and spears fly in all directions.
The effect is, as it should be, deafening. Yet it is a credit to Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin, as the focus is always upon the tragic cost of violence. With each shot of an impaled soldier and wounded ape, emotion is drawn from the subject first, over spectacle – something the rebooted franchise has perfected, whilst setting a bench-mark for its blockbuster counterparts. This masterfully protracted sequence of tension and many like it, exist within War, aided by the ever-great work of composer Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Star Trek), who effectively taps into haunting effects of war through the particular utilisation of a choir.
Despite its emotional power, the narrative and subsequent developments of War is occasionally uninventive, as a large portion of the final act is fairly reminiscent of The Great Escape – something that Rise already tapped into. But it is surprisingly easy to forgive such a small shortcoming, as the film’s performances are exemplary. Much has been said of Serkis and his dedication to his Mo-Cap craft, but it seems as though his partnership with Reeves has allowed his character to deepen significantly, in addition to the many other apes onscreen. Caesar is an ape, yet here, he struggles with typically human difficulties: Guilt, rage, revenge. Each of which Serkis (and his co-stars) taps into, throughout purely character-driven moments. In some ways, it is easy to forget that he is an ape, as every possible emotion is wrung from each moment. Caesar is also joined by Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape, a charming if blissfully awkward, yet resourceful ape who speaks into Caesar’s life when family and friends are needed the most. Often, Bad Ape provides much-needed comic relief throughout a film packed with torture, death of family and imprisonment. But it is a testament to the writing of Reeves and Bomback, who rightfully choose for that not to be his primary function. And this is applicable to all apes throughout the film. Each one is different and is dealing with a manner of emotions. In a lesser film, they would have blended together in a CGI/VFX crowd. But here, the care and attention behind and in front of the camera shows.
Whilst providing the spectacle promised to us by its intense ad campaign, War retains its greatest asset: Fleshed-out characters with genuine emotions. It is virtually impossible to think of its characters as CGI creations, but living, breathing apes who grapple with deeply human themes in a truly powerful way. Thankfully, with this third instalment, there’s no monkeying around.
War for the Planet of the Apes is out in cinemas now!