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Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes


Andy Serkis is the ringmaster in the reboot series of The Planet of the Apes. A pioneer of iconic digital characters, having played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he's done it again with Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and now War for the Planet of the Apes. His latest action-adventure sees Caesar, the figurehead and lead for the series, rightfully front and centre. The character has not only developed in terms of characterisation, but in terms of screen time, occupying the lead role without "help" from supporting name actors.

In fact, War for the Planet of the Apes is taken almost entirely from the ape perspective without the film-makers trying to balance things out with human actors. James Franco, Frieda Pinto and John Lithgow helped stabilise the series in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman augmented the ensemble in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, while War for the Planet of the Apes almost abandons this format completely. The only noteworthy human actors are Amiah Miller, who echoes Dakota Fanning's star-making role in War of the Worlds and Mr. Dependable, Woody Harrelson.

Perhaps the notion of being overshadowed by a digital actor has made many weary to play opposite Serkis, who has carried the new series with a brooding, guarded and soulful performance. Either way, Matt Reeves, the film-maker who took over directing the series from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has done the near unthinkable by populating his film with digitally rendered motion capture performers. Toby Kebbell took on a bigger part for Dawn as Koba, a second-in-command and understudy role opposite Serkis. Now the ensemble is dominated by "ape" actors with more speaking parts emerging.

War for the Planet of the Apes

"It's too late to call shotgun!

Following a devastating blow to the apes, the herd seek a more long-term sanctuary as Caesar sets out on a quest to take revenge on those responsible. The third installment has been influenced by Biblical epics, more specifically the war film, Apocalypse Now. Set against a cold and icy winter, the migration scenes and story's impetus have correlations with the Exodus. Then, following a similar trajectory to Apocalypse Now, Caesar's epic journey to confront the his aggressor echoes the classic rivalry between Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz.

Harrelson's not as immense as Kurtz, yet conveys a darker maniacal side than we're used to seeing. He's a worthy adversary for Caesar and makes it easy for the audience to pick sides. The magic of War for the Planet of the Apes is that Reeves is able to bring us to the realisation that while good and bad exist for both species, we've got more empathy for the anthropomorphic ape kind. While the adventure is epic and the action is enthralling, he takes the time to exact some heartfelt drama as moments of innocence and mercy spring up in the snow. While the struggle is serious and the running time is long, Reeves employs some comedy to lighten the intense and brooding atmosphere.

While these bursts of levity are welcome and funny, the tonal shift isn't quite as welcome. One character drives this comic relief gimmick, adding to the entertainment value in an almost plausible manner with a style of comedy that is jarring against the big picture. Then, various story elements just don't add up and could've used more forethought and extrapolation. It's hampered by the treatment of Caesar in the third act, the consistency of communication among the herd and even a few contrivances and cliches in terms of bringing it home.

Apart from some strong performances, the real wonder of War for the Planet of the Apes is the visual effects wizardry. We're completely immersed in the story as one amazing film location is populated with digital hybrids only to segue into another. The balance of landscape and characters is quite breathtaking at times as we marvel at the fine detail of a close up of the orangutan, Maurice, only to return to Andy Serkis and his complete embodiment of Caesar. While this is the third film in the series, there's a marked maturity, greater understanding and improvement over its predecessors and not only in terms of the ape characters.

War for the Planet of the Apes has its flaws, but the majesty of the visual tapestry, the ambitious role reversal, heartrending war drama and nature of the performances makes for an entertaining and spellbinding epic. It's the best film in the trilogy, showcasing just how far Hollywood has come in terms of CGI and mocap, delivering an awe-inspiring spectacle that chalks up a big win for the evolution of live-action digital characters under the rightful command of Andy Serkis.

The bottom line: Captivating