War for the Planet of the Apes starts out as it means to go on. Soldiers creep through the jungle and scope out an enemy encampment. They then blow it to smithereens before being captured and dragged before what’s left of their wounded and terrified enemy. The tone is serious, and the faces of the survivors etched with tragedy. But, as you of course know, the survivors aren’t humans, they’re apes, motion capture apes, and from the very first moment we are made to feel every ounce of their pain, their fear, and their anger. Monkeys or no monkeys, this is a real war movie, where every simian life has meaning.
War quickly sets itself up as an apes on a mission movie, as Caesar, played with jaded dignity by Andy Serkis, and a few of his closest furry friends, go in search of a mysterious military commander called The Colonel, played by Woody Harrelson, who has been responsible for their recent troubles.
One is tempted here to draw comparison with Apocalypse Now, which just goes to show the ambition with which director Matt Reeves (returning for another helping after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) has approached the material. This is especially evident In Woody Harrelson’s performance, who appears to be channelling Marlon Brando’s iconic turn as Colonel Kurtz, stroking his bald head and moving his face in and out of shadows as he speaks with abstract intensity. More obviously, at one point we see ‘Ape-pocalyse Now’ dawbed across a wall beneath The Colonel’s fortress / prison. We get the idea already.
Surprisingly it all works. As a war movie, the third instalment of the new Apes trilogy deals with some sophisticated ideas; the apes debate among themselves whether to be killers or pacifists; others of their kind give themselves over to the humans and become slaves in exchange for their safety; while the humans are simply taking action to prevent their extinction.
All of this would count for naught if the apes themselves weren’t entirely believable. Thankfully they are. Caesar, with his greying hair, lined face and guarded eyes, looks like an ape forced to be tough but wanting to be moral. While his right-hand ape, the shaggy and enormous Maurice, carries himself with a lumbering gentleness and looks out at the harsh world with a kindness and wisdom evident in his every glance. It’s a subtle contrast, beautifully realised, that demonstrates the talent and ingenuity of the performers and the digital artists tasked with bringing these characters to life.
Cleverly by the movie’s completion you realise that the recent Apes trilogy is neither a remake, nor a reboot, but a kind of side-quel to the original series, that started out in classic style with Charlton Heston as an astronaut returning to earth to find it overrun by talkative primates. Since all eight of these movies (I’m pretending the Tim Burton travesty doesn’t exist) now form part of a single timeline, the correct way to watch the series would surely be to start watching Planet of the Apes, stop it after about the first ten minutes, watch the new trilogy and then get back to Heston and those damn dirty apes that made his life such a trial. So much is so sensibly explained that doing this will surely enrich our understanding and enjoyment of the original series. What may have appeared to be a cynical piece of franchise exploitation suddenly turns out to be the perfect capper to a beloved series. No mean feat.
For those looking for a blockbuster movie full of giddy thrills, War for the Planet of the Apes is probably not for you. This is decidedly not Friday night fare. And for those looking for a serious movie full of thick, chewable themes, there are probably going to be a few too many motion capture monkeys. But for the rest of us, it’s a satisfying conclusion to a surprisingly effective trilogy.
A word of advice however, for all the technical wizardry on show, War simply isn’t worth seeing in 3D. The extra dimension adds nothing aside from a little extra cost and a slightly annoying set of glasses. Save yourself the bother.