In War for the Planet of the Apes, the hero’s journey comes of great consequence to the resilience, the spirit, and the ethical foundation of the once infant ape Caesar. This third film in the series deals with the fallout of the the uprising of Caesar’s dissident Koba in Dawn…, with political and global ramifications and push the struggle between humans and apes to yet another tipping point. Caesar, as masterfully portrayed by Andy Serkis as ever, is a reluctant warrior pushed into circumstances far past what he has bargained with the entrance of a brutal colonel (Woody Harrelson) and his loyal military horde.
The film owes great precision and narrative risk to its helmer Matt Reeves. Not only does Reeves deliver breathtaking, rousing imagery but fills the frame with an emotional weight to rival any major budget film in recent years. The stakes of War are ever present on a micro and macro level, creating a complicated emotional minefield for the audience without easy compromise. Of all the directors taking the reins of major franchises in the past decade, his voice rings among the most distinct and ever-promising – and with a resume worth more consideration than he has received.
Once again this Apes comes alive in photorealistic detail. Much has been repeated about the achievement of the performers that deliver the character work behind the computer enhancement, but the work of the digital artists cannot be denied. – this is the best visual effects yet for the series and surpasses your disbelief that you are witnessing actual animals. That the technical achievement knocks us off are feet is truly to serve an unpredictable epic. What has set this series apart thus far is the unexpected and fully fleshed field of consequences they have staged for audiences, rich in complexity and nuance to go with the immaculate visuals on the screen.
But no matter all the technical and narrative awe that the film inspires, War is back-breaking stuff. As current political uprisings around the globe distance themselves from our humanity, it is difficult to watch this unfold in allegory on the screen with Holocaust and race riot imagery and call the film entertainment. This is a blockbuster of only moderate uplift arising from its wonder, all too close to home for our current existential musings of dread. Even in a less dire global climate, War for the Planet of the Apes would be a lot to emotionally stew on for one blockbuster.
Which somewhat speaks to the boldness of the film. While it maybe doesn’t have as much on its mind as it leads you to believe, its rigorousness is quite impressive from a studio feature as franchises continue to play by the numbers. It’s quite impressive that the film doesn’t sink because of its darkness, perhaps a testament to Reeves’s ability to allow the humane to shine through no matter the punishment. Unlike the likes of this year’s dispirited Logan or Baby Driver, this film takes no delight in violence and is ever aware of the cost.
In some ways this light beyond the dark presentation feels of a piece with Reeves’s underrated Let Me In. With both, Reeves confronts the audience in soul-searching, speechless close ups – here to breathtaking effect between orangutan Maurice and an orphaned girl. Also Reeves knows the impact of a single flash of blood, creating great impact in a minimalist frame, a stunning moment of quiet to heighten the coming bombast.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a full-bodied hurdle into darkness, but with the light of humanity shining through no matter how hard the dread squeezes. Its sheer relentlessness is part of the boldness of its vision, with Reeves having keen consideration of how far he can push this narrative without alienating. In Caesar, we have been given a hero with an evolving internal struggle to play out on a grand scale, one that we can actually feel.