Matt Reeves’ latest film opens on a band of human survivors, a team of heavily armed military men and women who are methodically combing through California’s Muir Woods in search of Caesar, the chimpanzee leader of the increasingly dominant apes who gained intelligence during the “Simian Flu” outbreak that decimated much of Earth’s human population at the end of Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 prequel/reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But once these soldiers encounter, engage and are overrun by a group of apes on horseback, writer/ director Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback quickly switch their point of view.
In War for the Planet of the Apes, the third and finest part of an increasingly successful and fascinating film trilogy (coming after Reeves’ 2014 installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), Reeves and Bomback have made the bold choice to leave the human protagonists behind entirely. It’s an inspired move that pays off in spades, since Caesar (once again masterfully portrayed by Andy Serkis in another award-worthy motion capture performance) has become a far more compelling character than the Homo sapiens played by James Franco in the first film and Jason Clarke in the second. Serkis’ performance has taken on real emotional dimension, underlined by the frequent close-ups that Reeves employs as he hovers on Caesar’s anguished face (brought to life by visual effects supervisors Dan Lemmon and Joe Letteri, veterans of both the Apes films and James Cameron’s Avatar).
It’s clear that Reeves (who also helmed 2008’s Cloverfield and 2010’s Let Me In) has studied up on the Westerns of Sergio Leone, films like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, since he loves getting in tight on Caesar’s eyes, much like Leone did on Clint Eastwood’s. Of course, this technique wouldn’t work if not for the stellar contributions of the animators who translate Serkis’ mo-cap performance into the most realistic digital character to date—and there are almost a dozen more like him, including Caesar’s right-hand simian, Rocket (mo-cap by Terry Notary, who recently performed as the titular ape in Kong: Skull Island), and his trusted orangutan advisor, Maurice (Karin Konoval), both of whom have stood by him in all three films.
The Western influence is felt in other ways, and it’s not just the films of Leone that Reeves, um, apes. After Caesar’s scouts are ambushed by the soldiers during the film’s opening scene and the ensuing battle leaves numerous casualties on both sides, he shows the surviving humans mercy, allowing them to return to their leader, Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson in a not-too subtle nod to Marlon Brando’s off-the-reservation Col. Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now).
They bring a message of armistice, but the colonel isn’t having it. Fifteen years have passed since the Simian Flu outbreak, and with the human species on the brink of extinction, he plans to personally kill the ape leader his troops have spent the past two years hunting. Things don’t go quite according to plan, however.
During a nighttime assault on Caesar’s hidden settlement near the Pacific coast (illuminated by lapping firelight and captured beautifully by returning cinematographer Michael Seresin in 65mm format with vintage lenses), the ape leader, prematurely graying and walking more erect than ever, notices some green laser lights cutting through the tranquil darkness, soon broken by a muzzle flash. Surviving an assassination attempt led by the colonel himself, Caesar drives the invaders away, but not before he’s suffered some devastating personal losses.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes may have established Caesar as a pacifist, placing him at diametric odds with his best friend, Koba (Toby Kebbell), a militant chimp left physically and emotionally scarred from years of experiments conducted on him in a human lab. But our hero had to confront the limits to his pacifism when he was forced to take the life of a murderous Koba, who threatened a tentative peace that had been brokered with the civilian human survivors. Haunted by his actions (and literally haunted by guilt-driven visions of Koba, who sporadically appears as his fragile psyche wears down), Caesar chooses to embark on a lone mission of revenge against the colonel, separating from his ape brethren as they set off on a cross-country journey toward a mythical Promised Land.
Michael Giacchino’s superb, chest-beating score supplements the Jerry Goldsmith-influenced themes he composed for Dawn with a new main theme that evokes John Barry at his best. It’s a perfect complement to a Western-flavored film that begins as an Anthony Mann-style revenge picture akin to 1950’s Winchester ’73, becomes the best prison escape drama featuring anthropomorphized animals since 2000’s Chicken Run and winds up in iconic John Ford territory as the sun sets on what Reeves has said is his final contribution to the long-running Planet of the Apes franchise, which now numbers nine films and two TV series. He leaves it in a perfect place, nicely setting up the 1968 original while embedding enough Easter eggs for longtime fans to appreciate and new fans to discover. ♦
War for the Planet of the Apes ***1/2
Starring Andy Serkis, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Devyn Dalton, Amiah Miller, Ty Olsson, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Michael Adamthwaite, Gabriel Chavarria, Aleks Paunovic, Max Lloyd-Jones, Toby Kebbell and Woody Harrelson. Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, based on characters created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. Directed by Reeves. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.