Released: 11th July 2017
Directed By: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Trilogy-cappers are a tricky thing to nail down. Get it right and you’ve got the next Toy Story. Miss the mark and you’ve got The Dark Knight. War for the Planet of the Apes lands its collective trilogy on neither of these markers, but errs closest to the beloved Pixar trilogy overall. Neither its best instalment (an honour easily bestowed 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) nor its worst (the still very solid Rise of…), War’s nonetheless a top-shelf, top-class and top-tier summer blockbuster as eager to indulge philosophically as it is in set-pieces and visual effects.
Two years on from Dawn, Caesar and his people are now being hunted by the remains of the US military – led by hard-lining Colonel McCullough. When a covert strike force infiltrates the apes’ hidden village however, unthinkable tragedy sees the peaceful ape leader set out on a mission of vengeance against his human counterpart, a mission that soon carries with it the fate of ape kind itself.
To even further discuss the foundational triumph that is Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar seems increasingly redundant as the years fly by, and – should anyone be waiting for him to deliver a less-than-stellar turn – rest assured, that ain’t happening this time around either. With Serkis on as solid a footing as ever then, it’s ultimately newcomer Steve Zahn who steals the show as instant breakout character Bad Ape, an endearing new addition to the series that you frankly won’t be able to get enough of. Woody Harrelson, meanwhile, brings his level best to what at times feels like a genocidal take on Brando’s Col. Kurtz, but straddles an uncomfortable line between offering a great performance and having a role that’s not quite sketched out to the level you’d hope from this series to date.
Intriguingly, there’s a noticeable effort to include a secondary “franchise” element to the story this time around, with War ostensibly serving as a bridging tale to 1968’s original Planet of the Apes. Ever wonder just how you get from this series to that one? The answers are all here. Not in an overly-indulgent and nauseating “cinematic universe” sense either, but very much in a subtle and rather cleverly utilised method that those unaware of the original franchise may well not even notice. Heck, two of the original series’ central characters are introduced here, and it’s barely even dwelled on. It’s so stealthily delivered, in fact, that you’ll be forgiven for retroactively adding even more negativity to your thoughts on Russell Crowe’s eye-rolling diversion in last month’s The Mummy.
War’s ultimate success however is all down to craftsmanship. Director Matt Reeves shows up ready to play, asserting himself as a bonafide auteur with this thoughtful, elegant, and periodically profound summer tentpole flick. Michael Giacchino meanwhile remains to twenty-first century cinema what John Williams was to the twentieth, and Mark Bomback (co-writing with Reeves) offers up what would be the sharpest work of his career to date, were he not also credited on (the still superior) Dawn. Sure, it’s a “war” in the same way they couldn’t use the title Captain America: Civil Airport Skirmish, but an insular concentration camp tale this tense and thrilling can effectively get away with whatever title it wants.
If War is the end of this series, then it bows out not on its best note, but a graceful one with something genuine to say. There may well be story left to tell – and it’s not unthinkable that we could wind up with a straight Planet of the Apes remake next time around – but even such an unexciting prospect as that is rife with potential in the hands of the talent behind this rarest of solid threequels. If this is where we leave the apes however, we leave them on the back of a trilogy that started solid, got great, and ended with outright excellence. And that rarity is something you shouldn’t miss.