Let’s talk about a straight-faced prequel series based entirely on justifying a Twilight Zone-esque twist ending of a 1960s sci-fi film. You know, highly emotional films that take their subject matter very seriously, even though they’re about intelligent apes taking over the Earth. This sounds like it shouldn’t work. Nobody asked for this. We assumed Tim Burton’s failed remake would be the end of the talking apes films, but thank Caesar we were wrong!
War for the Planet of the Apes gets its wide release this week, and it already feels like Twentieth Century Fox’s worst kept secret. Of course that’s the purpose of good marketing. Fox wisely started their hype machine by screening it for critics over a month in advance and letting the work speak for itself. It was a bold move – and one that paid off with praise across the board. I’m here to tell you that this is a rare case where you can believe the hype. War for the Planet of the Apes is the best action movie of the summer.
Picking up several years after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes left off, War continues to incrementally move towards where (when) the original 1968 film began. The apes are in the middle of a full blown war with the humans. Caesar and his loyal following have continued to evolve at a rapid rate, so has the Simian Flu, which is now causing the remaining humans to devolve. Woody Harrelson plays an unhinged Colonel who hates every ape he sees, from Chimpan-A to Chimpanzee. Considering how fast things have escalated, it’s hard to blame them for believing that annihilating the apes is the only way to save the human race. Had we not already spent two films with Caesar, his family and followers, we might be even side with the crazy Colonel, but that’s not the case. In Caesar the filmmakers have created one of the most complicated, sympathetic and badass protagonists in recent years. We don’t need a villain in order to root for Caesar, but Harrelson still makes for a pretty good one.
The praises of Weta Workshop and Andy Serkis cannot be sung enough. Each film has had a bigger ask of their motion capture capabilities as the humans have slowly been phased out of the picture. As we saw last year with The Jungle Book, this technology continues to top itself, and War for the Planet of the Apes is next level. The ape performances in this film are sure to revive conversations about how this kind of achievement should be recognized and rewarded. Likely the accolades will continue to go to the effects teams, while Serkis will continue to be the go-to actor for all things mo-cap, for good reason.
As good as the technical work is, you should never undervalue the strength of writing and directing in making you forget that what you’re watching is an almost complete facsimile of reality. After substantially elevating the series and raising the stakes with Dawn, Matt Reeves returns as director and co-writer along with screenwriter Matt Bomback and director of photography Michael Seresin. War expands on many of the themes and ideas introduced in the first two films in ways that make them fit together perfectly, yet can strongly stand (upright) on its own.
Many are referring to this as the conclusion of the trilogy, and while this certainly closes a chapter, we’re still far from where the ’68 film picks up. They could squeeze a few more films into this franchise, or they could call it a day now and it would still make for a pretty satisfying trilogy. There’s talk of a fourth film, I wouldn’t be surprised if it sets up another entire era of the conflict. If this quality keeps up, why not another trilogy? Or lead us right into full-on reboot territory? If they keep this quality, nobody will complain.
The only thing clunky or traditional about War for the Planet of the Apes is its title. The POTA addendum is pretty much the only remaining DNA these films share with the originals which started strong before devolving into hokey B-movie schlock once they began pumping out a movie a year in the early ’70s. We may not have asked for these films, but it’s safe to say that these Apes prequels have steadily become the most underrated contemporary franchise.