If you’d told someone before the release of 2011’s Rise that a series of Planet of the Apes prequels would end up being one of the decade’s best trilogies, they’d have rightly scoffed. Prequels are generally a terrible idea anyway, cashing in on a brand name to tell a story that rarely does anything except strip the alluring mystery away from its universe, and every attempt to revisit Apes after the 1968 original was met with what could be generously described as diminishing returns. Yet, with sharp writing, tremendous set-pieces, and brilliant mo-cap performances led by Andy Serkis, these films have constantly defied expectations, and the closer, War, is a powerful epic, sweeping and personal, a highlight of 2017’s blockbuster crop.
We pick up with ape leader Caesar (Serkis) a few years after the events of Dawn, with a bloody, stuttering war raging between Caesar’s forces and the remaining human military. It’s an existential threat for both factions, and director Matt Reeves showcases this in an agonisingly tense and bruisingly violent opening set-piece, as a minor skirmish escalates into an all-out siege. Each side takes heavy losses, and Caesar tries to reach some sort of piece, but a particularly barbaric human raid led by the psychotic Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) leaves a blood debt that has to be repaid.
As the rest of the apes depart on an exodus to a rumoured promised land, Caesar goes to wreak his vengeance, accompanied by wise and kind orangutan Maurice (Karin Kanoval) and chimp warrior Rocket (Terry Notary, who also played Kong in this year’s reboot). It’s a perilous and arduous journey, and the trials Caesar encounters make War an exceedingly dark summer action movie. This isn’t just darkness on the 12a action movie spectrum either (I really wouldn’t bring anyone younger than 15 to this), but true, incessant war film bleakness.
That Reeves and screenwriter Mark Bomback were allowed to bring such genuine pain and emotional suffering to this is a testament to the well-founded trust the studio must have in this team, and they know how to make it effective, instead of just having darkness for darkness’ sake. Whippings, suicides, and even crucifixions make War a gruelling watch, but there’s enough feeling behind it for it to not be gratuitous, and rays of hope are peppered throughout to counter any exhaustion. Providing most of this light is mute, saucer-eyed young girl Nova (Amiah Miller), who is adopted as a surrogate daughter by Maurice after the apes stumble across her abandoned farm.
Miller makes for a phenomenal piece of casting, with an incredibly expressive face that more than makes up for her lack of words. Like the previous films, much of War’s dialogue is in sign language, and Miller’s aptitude for non-verbal communication means she fits in very well with her CG compatriots. Less effective levity is also introduced by Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a chimp with a vocabulary almost matching Caesar’s. Bad Ape evolved separately from the main group, abandoned at a zoo after the apocalyptic Simian Flu took hold, and his floundering and social idiocy, though occasionally funny, grates against the prevailing tone.
Performances across the board are of a high calibre; Harrelson brings a furious intensity to the Colonel without going too unhinged, and the ape actors remain superb. Their roles are physically and emotionally demanding, and they all pull off both challenges with resounding success, a success only enhanced by the effects work. WETA Digital continue to lead the industry in bringing computer creations to life, putting real life behind the eyes of their apes in a way that makes almost every other CG character look shoddy. In one truly astounding close-up, the line between Serkis and Caesar completely melts away, one of the most impressive effects shots you could ever see.
It’s not perfect, and even with WETA’s skill, some of the action sequences still do devolve into the silliness inherent in this franchise’s basic premise. Though for the most part it’s well paced, at nearly 150 minutes, War is definitely a bit too long, but its ambition, in both its scale and character work, elevates it past these quibbles. A disconcertingly eclectic score puts the finishing touch on a bold, desolate, and beautiful final chapter of one of the nicest cinematic surprises of recent years.