Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of my favorite movie going experiences of the last ten years. I wanted to see it, but in no way did I think it was going to be good. Even when the reviews dropped, I had no real idea what to expect. I was taken aback by the movie. The “NO!” moment of Rise made my jaw drop, it was so shocking and thrilling. It was, and still is, a fantastic film.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a stressful one, because everything you want to happen goes wrong. The conflict between the fading humans and “dawning” apes of the movie felt like it was tipping over for two hours and was intense with little relief. It’s an impressive sequel, and darker as well.
And with that we come to War for the Planet of the Apes. The first thing to mention is that this third film is bleaker than the last two. This isn’t a triumphant, crowd pleasing series topper. It’s dark, depressing and the light at the end of the tunnel feels dimmer than one might hope to see.
The movie opens with a battle between human military and an ape fort. The military is out to end the ape problem once and for all, hoping to kill the simian leader (and hero of the series) Caesar. When Caesar offers peace once more and things go wrong again, it’s time for treaties to end. Caesar gets selfish and, of course, things don’t work out and the rest of the movie is about Caesar trying to amend his mistakes.
Did I mention the movie is bleak? It’s winter, so the movie is full of dead landscapes and gray skies. The world feels like it’s fading away. The people left alive aren’t the best humanity has to offer. Even the apes feel directionless, trapped between annihilation or all out war.
The movie also spends a lot of time in a military base that really brings the dark. Cages, work forces, fanatics with omega tattoos. Director Matt Reeves seems to be channeling his best Spielberg with this set, with more than one allusion to Schindler’s List. And that won’t be the last movie referenced either. The film is built off of the blueprints of The Ten Commandments, Apocalypse Now and True Grit.
While Rise was a boiler and Dawn was an all out blockbuster, War is character piece. It’s a contemplative film, more focused on Caesar’s journey than an actual war. This might put some off, as there’s very little in the way of action set pieces, save for the opening and climax. Nothing on par with the apes escaping in Rise or the raid on the human settlement in Dawn. The moments of action we see are more harrowing than thrilling. While I liked the film, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed that the series ends on smaller notes. But it resonates at the end, in ways that Dawn didn’t.
Woody Harrelson is a scary guy in the movie. He’s crazy, sure, but he’s focused. He’s in charge. His life is violence and he’s made tough choices, even if he wasn’t forced into them. He’s a bit like Patton, a bit of Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. He hates the newly intelligent apes, but needs them. Like Caesar, his mistakes might threaten his own people.
Of course, it’s Caesar who owns the screen. Ever since the first in this new reboot series, Caesar has carried these movies. Surrounded by character actors, Andy Serkis continues to be the most compelling actor on screen and makes Caesar a hero to root for. The work begun with Gollum has been refined to perfection. Caesar is now one of the great movie characters of all time.
Like this year’s Logan, which left me depressed in all sorts of ways, War attaches itself to you and ruins your day. I don’t know how rewatchable a film like that is, as blockbusters don’t do that too often. The Hunger Games and it’s sequels had a stronghold for a while on depressing, big budget dystopias. The “fun” of Rise is gone in this third chapter and replaced with something that’s a bit more meaningful, but less enjoyable. It’s a movie that’s good for you, it tricks you into eating your vegetables with large scale storytelling and CGI apes. But you wouldn’t want to see this every weekend at the movies, it would be horrible for your good mood. A fun time? Not really. Recommended? Absolutely.