Nutshell: Literally awe-inspiring. Director Matt Reeves and an incredibly talented group of motion capture and live action performers deliver a meditation on what it means to be human…and how humanity isn’t something you’re born with by simple genetics, but something hard won every single day. Grade: A
“BAD APE! Bad ape.”
Story: Fifteen years after Rise, genetically enhanced intelligent chimpanzee Cesar and his followers hope that peace can be found in the wilderness. Sadly, humans – with a fanatical Army officer with a “Kill all Kongs” mentality at the forefront – have other ideas. When Cesar’s group is brought low, he must decide what’s best for those under his protection.
Genre I’d put it in: Powerful Genre Films With A Message
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: The third film in the Planet of the Apes reboot series. Based on the original Planet of the Apes series (1968-1973).
Gotta say: I was uncertain about this film at first. At two hours and twenty minutes, it’s an endurance test, especially if you’ve decided on that large soda before settling in. And it does seem to go on and on. But damn if I wasn’t lost in Reeves’ story every second. Not only are the themes universal, but meditations on humanity and the nature of the human soul are deep dives that ground the action while driving the story forward to its inevitable (for folks who know the original series of films) conclusion.
War harks back to Apocalypse Now Vietnam-era war stories, post-apocalyptic films like The Road, and in the subjugation of the intelligent apes, Civil War slavery epics like Roots and 12 Years a Slave. But while I was able to pick out references to films that had gone before, and almost expected Cesar to rise up and say “I AM KUNTA KINTE” at one point, War carves out its own story, and stands on its own merits.
As “The Colonel”, Woody Harrelson channels Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, and sinks his teeth into the role. “He will see we’re not savages.” Oh Cesar, if only it were that simple. Cesar overestimates human kindness, and underestimates the fear or “other” that drives so many people to do what they do. Reeves plays with the human/animal dynamic, with soldiers screaming and howling like apes, while the apes themselves are shown struggling to help each other survive.
Then there’s Andy Serkis as Cesar. What can I say about his amazing performances that haven’t already been said? Seriously, give this man an Oscar already. Here in War, his Cesar feels like flesh-and-blood, and Serkis’ voice draws you into the character, providing the gravitas needed for this heavy-hitting tale. The emotion he expresses is incredible.
Steve Zahn does a wonderful job blending comic relief and childlike innocence as “Bad Ape”, or as I couldn’t help but think of him, Dobby the House Ape. The wide-eyed, almost completely bald ape is just that adorable, and Zahn steals every scene he’s in. As Nova, the mute girl Maurice the orangutan can’t leave behind, young Amiah Miller delivers an outstanding performance. She’s got killer acting chops, and works exceedingly well with all the CGI/motion-capture performers. So much so, that her presence lends a credibility beyond the beautiful computer wizardry.
On that note, the FX/CGI is next-level breathtaking. I still love the skeleton markings many of the apes wear draw on themselves as a sort of battle-ready posturing. But with each passing year, the ability of filmmakers to breathe believable life into computerized characters is a wonder to behold. So is the set design, with beautiful snowy landscapes, hardcore Army barracks, and an icy abandoned ski lodge that’s beautiful and desolate.
Reeves isn’t afraid to hit hard with his message. Are humans the real savages here? How can humans be so heartless, yet believe themselves to be good? And what does it truly mean to be human? You’ll be pondering those questions long after the credits roll.
#Protip: With so many people talking about Serkis’ motion-capture performance as Cesar, is this the year we see the first Oscar nomination for a motion-capture performance? Ladies and Gentlemen, start your Oscar engines…