War for the Planet of the Apes movie review: Gutsy cinema that works on almost every level
Director: Matt Reeves
We’re at a pivotal moment in the history of Hollywood blockbuster entertainment filmmaking. Everything that used to amaze us 10 years ago has begun to feel stale. A film no longer commands our attention with the mere elements of budget and visual effects — there needs to be a heart, a soul in these films to make a lasting impact, and something much more substantial, to make us think about returning to the cinemas for a second viewing.
I can’t think of a single big budget film of the 2010s that has made me return to the cinema hall — except for the Apes films. The new entry, War for the Planet of the Apes, is an installment that achieves the incredibly rare feat of becoming a trilogy that gets better with every subsequent film. This is the film that cements Caesar as an iconic cinematic character, and Matt Reeves as the only contemporary filmmaker who uses giant VFX to exercise thoughtful and surprisingly emotional social commentary rather than the popcorn entertainment of explosions and mindless action.
Picking up a few years after the harrowing events of the previous film, War puts us right into the conflict between the Apes who have become natural habitants of the planet and the increasingly destructive humans fighting the apes to reclaim their supremacy. It’s best not to read much about the plot as the thrilling sense of discovery and adventure is best enjoyed walking in blind. Caesar (once again played by the incredible Andy Serkis) has to lead his people to safety as a group of unidentified soldiers plan to attack the Apes’ stronghold, and the supremely evil Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who leads the soldiers has nefarious plans of his own.
The best thing about this film is how it constantly surprises you at every turn, subverting your wildest expectations of what a commercial entertainer, and potentially the end of a trilogy should be like. Despite the bombastic title, there is little action in the film, which, shockingly works in its favour. Reeves is not concerned with delivering epic battles between Apes and humans — because it’s already been done twice in the earlier films. Brilliantly, the narrative is a moody, bleak, character drama — almost seeming like an epic slog through nightmarishly harsh conditions as Caesar goes on a vengeful quest.
Much like in the previous film, the themes of character dynamics, irony, the choice between good and evil, morality vs survival, the transfer of power, and the consequences of actions are exercised with poetic harmony. The execution is so startlingly sure footed, it never once feels like you’re watching a film with CGI apes speaking in subtitles. The film often turns into a Greek tragedy, and despite some heavy handed socio political parallels, Reeves rattles your bones with powerful silences and a string of emotional payoffs. There’s a scene where an ape plucks a flower from a tree and places it on a little girl’s ear, which sounds cheesy on paper but is just one of the many sequences you’ll find yourself thinking about long after you’ve left the theater.
Hard boiled film geeks will find a treasure trove of inspirations in this film — from Apocalypse Now, to The Bridge on the River Kwai, to Schindler’s List, and many more seminal films. Harrelson’s character is in fact quite reminiscent of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, and it’s astonishing how the film explores the current state of things in America — white supremacy, racism, blind jingoism and a military bent — through this character’s eyes, and rendering a vital piece of information that makes his character’s motivations believable and understandable. It’s a great villain juxtaposed to a great hero — making for a very ballsy piece of cinema that works on almost every imaginable level, and you should be running towards the nearest theater right about now.