War for the Planet of the Apes Concludes the Best Trilogy No One Is Talking About – Vanity Fair
Justice for the Planet of the Apes movies! Sure, they get good reviews and have done pretty well at the box office, but they’re just not as appreciated as they should be. These are wonderful films that should be widely revered, particularly 2014’s towering classical tragedy Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and now War for the Planet of the Apes (opening July 14), a grim and resonant prison-escape drama that caps off a trilogy in rousing fashion. Thoughtfully staged and rumbling with purpose, these movies are earnest, often deeply unsettling allegories that take their mission seriously. As much ink should be spilled on them as is devoted to, say, the Avengers movies.
And yet, it’s not. Maybe that’s because the themes addressed in the Apes movies are so dark and uncomfortably familiar. In Dawn, director Matt Reeves delved into the inevitability of conflict, chronicling how fatal miscommunications can crescendo into war. In War, we’re in the middle of that mess, with the apes on the defensive as humans—themselves factionalized in this post-plague dystopia—stage raids meant to eradicate the apes once and for all. Leading the apes is Caesar, the chimpanzee played by Andy Serkis, in what is a truly dazzling feat of motion capture performance. In War, Caesar experiences grief and anger and hope and other big feelings, all rendered beautifully in a disarmingly effective marriage between actor and pixel.
Indeed, the most staggering thing about the Apes movies is how deeply we’re able to connect to these C.G.I. creations. The technology is just about perfected in War, seamless and so real that it skips past uncanny and goes straight to marvelous. It’s thrilling to be so transported by this nuanced wizardry, a warm and heartening sensation that does a lot to cut through the heaviness of the story. In some ways, you feel more, and feel it harder, for these apes than you would a human character, because there’s such magnificence in their design.
Which makes watching War all the more harrowing, as Caesar and his friends are subjected to a great deal of torment in a prison camp run by Woody Harrelson’s army colonel, a cruel hardliner with a glint of zealotry in his eyes. Most of War concerns Caesar trying to deliver his people (his apes) to freedom, a rescue that Reeves choreographs using a mix of tension and humor. The lighter aspect comes largely in the form of Bad Ape, an addled recluse played with melancholy wit by Steve Zahn. Bad Ape is a wondrous creation, funny and cute and sad, as vibrantly and idiosyncratically alive as Andy Serkis’s Gollum. (Or, indeed, Andy Serkis’s Caesar.) Reeves doesn’t lean too heavily on Bad Ape’s comic relief, though. This is a carefully balanced film, neither unendingly punishing nor blithely ignorant of its stakes.
For my money, Dawn is still the standout classic of this trilogy, vast and searching in its thematic scope as it is. War is a smaller film, more compact, sinewy thriller than grand drama of civilization. That doesn’t mean that War is any less piercing, though, any less vital or urgent in its pleas for peace and compassion. By the end of the film—a sweeping, Old Hollywood ending that somehow never feels corny or overwrought—Reeves has certainly run us through the emotional wringer. We watch apes struggle and fail; they overcome fear; they realize their strength and autonomy; they learn and grow and change. It’s a lot, but it’s all done convincingly and persuasively. It’s almost funny, how dear to us these apes have become by the end of the film. Reeves has done such a masterful job of making us care.
Lest you think the movie is just one big ape weep-fest, there is also action and stuff. Beginning with its gliding, ominous opening shot of soldiers snaking through a forest, War sports a modest but confident style throughout. Reeves has a keen eye for the physics of his movie; all of its motion and activity feels earned and proportioned just right, whether it’s a simple horseback chase or a final battle full of gunfire and huge explosions. War for the Planet of the Apes is plenty exciting, though it’s considerably smaller in scale than many other summer blockbusters. Perhaps that’s why we haven’t always given these movies their due credit. They get a bit lost in the shuffle of louder franchise fare. But we should praise Caesar, and all the other apes, as often as we can. Theirs is a moving story told with skill and sincerity, rarer commodities than we humans would like to admit.