Planet of the Apes has always been an interesting series. Based on the Pierre Boulle’s novel, it’s setup is pulp science fiction – straight out of a vintage Star Trek episode. An astronaut crash lands on a remote planet where he discovers that humans are subservient to a race of hyper intelligent apes. It’s a story about man out of step in the natural order of things, where man is considered to be savage by the creatures we supposedly evolved from. It perhaps speaks to a deeper human feeling of being usurped by the other.
The 1968 original starring Charlton Heston is a sci-fi masterpiece with the most famous of suckerpunch endings that most viewers, regardless of having seen the movie before, is most likely to be aware of. The successive sequels of Planet of the Apes went into much darker territory, first of all with Beneath the Planet of the Apes in a plot that delved straight into the original’s nuclear apocalypse revelations. Even the third Apes movie – Escape from the Planet of the Apes ends extremely bleakly despite beginning as a relatively campy comedy that veers into Star Trek IV territory. The following Conquest and Battle of the Planet of the Apes went into prequel territory telling the story of Caesar, an ape who grows to lead the apes against the humans, inheriting the planet as we know it. Largely these movies are coloured by the political underpinnings of the period – Mutually Assured Destruction, Civil Rights and Cold War Tensions – science fiction writ large where the political subtext is write even larger.
Due to the nature of the Planet of the Apes and the way it ends, it’s virtually impossible to do a straight remake. Tim Burton tried in 2001, even though it didn’t really have the substance of the original movies, in fact I’m not even sure if the planet of the apes was actually revealed to be earth at any point. The twist ending left you scratching your head rather than slamming your fists into the floor. YOU MANIACS! That said, I still derive a degree of pleasure from Tim Burton’s take, Tim Roth as General Thade was legitimately terrifying and the whole film is basically a last hurrah for ape prosthetics before motion capture CGI took over thanks largely to the work done by Andy Serkis as Gollum in Lord of the Rings.
War of the Planet of the Apes is the third movie in the Apes reboot that was kickstarted back in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Directed by Matt Reeves, the story once again revolves around Caesar (Andy Serkis) the leader of a race of hyper intelligent apes living a life of peace within a post-apocalyptic earth where mankind has mostly been wiped out by an airborne virus that was also responsible for mutating the apes in the first place.
After the brief interlude of monkey civil war in the last movie 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar continues to live apart from mankind. But as always, the remaining humans seek to destroy Caesar, threatening the apes’ way of life in a final attempt to clutch onto a world that is gradually slipping from their fingertips. After a band of soldiers make the fight personal, after assaulting Caesar’s inner sanctum, the normally saintly prince of chimps becomes filled with wrath and rage, vowing to claim vengeance over the soldier’s enigmatic leader, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson).
Despite enjoying the previous two Planet of the Apes movies and indeed the entire series (including the 2001 remake by Tim Burton) I wasn’t exactly sold on War of the Planet of the Apes through its trailers or marketing. Walking through Manchester last weekend, I saw a huge poster emblazoned across a building with a closeup of Caesar’s scowling face. As you looked further afield, you would see the same face on buses. Even when I was driving to work, I was following a double decker bus which had his angry face staring down at me.
Watch the trailer above or indeed any of the trailers heralding the film’s release and you’ll see this big epic action movie with Woody Harrelson as this seemingly one note bad guy and one angry looking monkey packing a shotgun and lobbing grenades at flammable gas tanks. It’s the bit where Woody Harrelson’s character spells out the film’s title to the audience that really makes me groan. It will become a planet of apes. That’s the premise of the movie, I’m not sure if the scowling monkey conveyed that already?
Fortunately, the trailer really does the movie a disservice, whilst War of the Planet of the Apes does have all the action and explosions you’d expect from a summer blockbuster, there is a real dramatic weight to its story and characters, some of whom are staggeringly brought to life by the most mesmerising computer effects yet seen in a movie. I say mesmerising, because at points it’s easy to get lost in the film, it’s easy to accept these ape creatures as beings, as fully fledged characters. There’s a point in which the villain stares Caesar in the eyes and remarks how almost human they are. It’s true. There is no uncanny valley, the facial effects are as nuanced as a human performance and that’s not to discredit the human performances in the movie.
Despite gabbing all over the trailer, Woody Harrelson is an enigmatic presence as The Colonel. Again much of the conflict between him and Caesar is conveyed through stone cold stares and silences. There are more than a few nods to Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, an immaculately bald head shimmering from out of the darkness.
That sounded less erotic in my head.
It is rare for a movie of this size to simply let the camera dwell on a character’s face as they process emotion, but linger the cameras do on the faces of all these monkeys – chimps, gorillas, and orangutans. Giving the whole film a layer of dramatic gravity that grounds all the big boom set piece spectacle which comes in the third act. It’s simply amazing to watch.
All these smaller character interactions play out across these wintery exterior shots, the scenery is all icy mountain tops, snow swept wildernesses and gargantuan concrete military bunkers. At points it seems as if the film makers are going for Doctor Zhivago, this being a film about war and the suppression of a race of people. .
At the centre of it all is Andy Serkis as Caesar. Serkis has already gained a legendary status in the motion capture roles he has played over the last decade or so. No one has elevated the practice of creating digital characters in the way he has. Throughout War, Caesar is put through many trials and tribulations, even venturing in territory that is difficult to condone, despite this being a movie where the audience are supposed to side with the apes rather than the humans.
Though there are plenty of moments of humour between it’s cast of apes and plenty of nods to the original movies. War for the Planet of the Apes is a dark movie but is full of well… humanity. Those who aren’t invested in the previous movies will probably feel a little lost, but those who have been following will get a great movie that closes the trilogy. It still seems so bizarre that Planet of the Apes is still a thing, but I’m so glad that it still is.
Apes together strong! War for the Planet of the Apes is another extremely good entry in the Apes franchise. Though I still prefer Rise personally out of the trilogy, this brings the consistently brilliant trilogy to a close. At times I’m left wondering, how in the Hell does a franchise about talking apes inheriting the planet get to be this good? There is more than enough action and spectacle to entertain a mainstream audience but it’s in the quieter moments that War for the Planet of the Apes truly astounds with it’s groundbreaking computer effects. Easily one of the best of this year’s summer releases.