Do you ever stop to think that 20, 30, 40 years from now the computer effects work that we herald in today’s cinema will look dated and unfortunate, as we may look back now on science fiction CG from decades past?
At the onset of War for the Planet of the Apes, I thought of this briefly. I studied the edges of our simian compadres against the lush nature backdrops. Wondered if Winter (Aleks Paunovic) might stand out as too artificial given his albino coloring.
Then I dropped that thought. Even if somehow animators and effects artists master that uncanny valley to the point where computer generation and reality on film become indiscernible from one another and these apes look like child’s play in 30 years, this reboot Apes trilogy stands today as one of the biggest achievements in motion capture effects.
In War for the Planet of the Apes, these mo-capped monkey mates of ours set out to save their kind and escape the oppressive Colonel (Woody Harrelson). The Colonel runs a faction of marines fighting back against an ape-based disease dubbed the Simian Flu by killing both ape and their own kind.
And “ours” is the correct term here. We are not here to root for the humans. Not expressly, at least. We root for Caesar (Andy Serkis, in another transformative role), whose thirst for vengeance threatens to ruin his humanity…ape-ity?…(we’ll get to this later)…and turn him into another Koba.
Caesar’s journey has always had emotional heft to it. But this culmination of the trilogy gives him the most well-rounded arc, an arc that is hard to pry your eyes from.
Aside from being a film with immense visual effects work that is truly CG revolution in motion. Aside from being a film with great sound design and a melodically perfect score from Michael Giacchino. Aside from being a film with a few momentous action set pieces, choreographed balletically.
Aside from all of these things, War for the Planet of the Apes is a film with an astoundingly efficient narrative. Efficient not in the sense of time (the film clocks in at a massive 2 hours and 20 minutes), but efficient in the sense of motion.
This film moves from start to finish with no letting up. But it does not move constantly like a Michael Bay Transformers installment does: with no attention to the characters interacting within the plot, but merely with the opportunity to make ‘splosions and loud noises. It moves like a film with narrative purpose.
Unlike many major studio blockbusters of today, there is no real downtime in this film. There is no downtime because the characters have no possibility for downtime. The stakes are breathless and utterly real (in spite of the fact that these are non-real characters living the stakes) because the urgency is felt by the audience.
Director Matt Reeves puppeteers the audience in this sense. He strings us along through the arduous uphill battle of Caesar and his crew and cuts these strings at the height of the climax, leaving us in the middle of the sizzling aftermath to stew in the bleak realism of war-torn earth and innumerable casualties.
This is where we get the themes that are much denser than an action film about apes has any right to be. As apes become more human and humans become more ape, the two warring species are closer than they think. They fight for the same reason, hate each other for the same reason, grapple with wartime ethics in the same way.
War is an understood confusion. A mutual chaos. Both sides understand why they are there, and both assent to forgetting what is on the other side of the gun so that they can survive. It thus becomes easy to sympathize with Woody Harrelson’s crazed to almost Brando-in-Apocalypse Now levels of warped moral compass and apes that decide to work in soldier servitude as “Donkeys” to the humans.
Yes, these villains do not receive the character treatment that they need to truly solidify these themes. But the film works within the constraints of its fast-paced story to give enough depth in the foe that at least begins the thematic conversation.
War for the Planet of the Apes has a surprising amount of depth in its storytelling, enough depth to put Michael Bay and the Marvel/DC properties to shame. This in a Summer action blockbuster that visually rivals these billion dollar franchises as well.
It is the type of film that every Summer blockbuster should hope to live up to. This is the action sci-fi gold standard moving forward into the 2020s.
War for the Planet of the Apes: A-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)