First, an admission: When I wrote my marketing recap for War For The Planet Of The Apes I had not only not seen that movie (obviously since it wasn’t out yet) but Rise and Dawn, the previous two entries in this series, as well. I’ve since corrected that omission and was able to see War in the context of the entire story.
The story, as Nolan alluded to in his review, has the apes reluctantly facing the final confrontation with the soldiers representing the dwindling human population. The ALZ-113 virus inadvertently unleaded in Rise has wiped out 90% of humanity and the army lead by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is mad as hell about that. Caesar (Andy Serkis) sets out to confront him and end the battle once and for all and save the super-intelligent apes who just want to live peacefully. Things aren’t so simple, of course, and the finale isn’t what anyone involved expects.
When I recapped the marketing for the movie last week I felt the primary message was the all-out war that erupts between the two parties. I, to quote Obi-Wan, was wrong.
Nolan already talked about how emotionally heavy the story was, but I need to reiterate that point since it largely took me by surprise. Having just watched Rise and Dawn nearly back-to-back and within days of eventually watching War, I thought I was ready for how things would be brought to their conclusion. I could see the character arcs that had been established and was braced for them to reach their endpoint.
While I can’t say I was surprised by how things ended up and where the characters, particularly Caesar since we’d been following him since Rise, I was no less moved. All of the characters tugged on my heartstrings more than a little. I was emotionally invested in the fate of Caesar’s trusted advisors Maurice and Rocket. I was moved by the plight of Nova, the young mute girl the apes discover on their travels and begin to protect. Most of all, I felt the weight of Caesar’s burden of leadership, with the entire ape community counting on his judgement to guide them toward the future.
That last point is 100% because of the performance of Serkis. While the actor’s true face is never seen, it’s his performance that conveys all of Caesar’s worries and cares. We see what the ape leader is thinking and what factors he’s weighing because they come through in the performance, making their way from Serkis’ face through the camera, digital animators and others. It’s actually astounding what’s accomplished here and it will be a shame when Serkis is once again overlooked when it comes time for awards season.
Director Matt Reeves also deserves a fair amount of the credit. While the marketing may have focused on the explosions and gun battles that ensue between the human and ape armies, it’s the smaller moments that carry the bulk of the storytelling forward. Reeves handles both deftly, bringing an approach that’s both solidly workmanlike and unexpectedly artistic to a franchise finale. That’s even more so than he already did in Dawn, which carried the burden of being the middle of the story but which was no less satisfying in and of itself.
Much like Patty Jenkins did with Wonder Woman, Reeves has found a way to bring emotional artistry to what could have easily been yet another bloated blockbuster just there to keep the money rolling in. Between his directorial skills and Serkis’ incredible performance as the core of the story, War For The Planet Of The Apes is more well-crafted than a summer popcorn flick has any right to be. While the marketing that sold it may have been a little action heavy, don’t let that dissuade you from a movie that satisfies on many levels.