When I first saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in theaters, I was so taken by the quietness of it. The first twenty minutes allowed us to see a new ape civilization in its true home, deep in the woods, communicating solely through their own sign language. Whenever an action scene seemed to be coming, the film always resisted the temptation and kept its focus on the main characters: the apes themselves.
After the success of Dawn, the sequel’s title was soon announced: War for the Planet of the Apes. Seeing the title and ‘war’ in it, I expected it to be the big action epic the series seemed to hint at. I worried they would trade the stillness of Dawn for the heavy metal of action set pieces so common in big-budget films today. But I forgot that an oft-said maxim of war is that it is long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.
I should never have worried for War is long stretches of beauty punctuated by moments of terror.
Whenever sequels are made, they often feel like noisier versions of what came before. As if the team behind them simply dialed everything up to eleven. Here, though, it feels like director Matt Reeves and his own team sat down, took the opposite approach and said, “How many beautiful, soul-stirring moments can we fit into this thing?”
Because there are many. And they are all goddamn beautiful.
Lodged deep in my brain are the moments of seeing the interactions between the young girl Nova (Amiah Miller) and Maurice, the unflappable orangutan. Of seeing Nova place a small flower on the head of a fallen gorilla. Of the seamless eye communication between apes in the midst of inhumane treatment at the hands of human beings. Of Caesar watching in horror at what has happened to his kind. Of Caesar realizing how he is not so different from The Colonel, the one man he has come to kill.
I could go on and on. This movie found all of its soul and laid it bare. And it somehow wrapped a pretty cool prison break mission and some seriously explosive explosions around it without it ever feeling jarring. It also doesn’t forget to inject the story with small doses of terror, giving our ape characters very real threats that are as terrifying as they are thematically driven.
The control director Reeves and his screenwriting team have over this story is no more apparent than in two key additions: in Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and in the simian virus that has mutated. The series has done such a great job of showing us the various types of apes – both in demeanor and in personal history – and Bad Ape, a chimp who has escaped from the zoo, further deepens those themes. He is comic relief that leavens the heavy dramatic load, but he is also another bright color in this story’s crayon box. When Caesar and his crew first arrive at The Colonel’s stronghold, they witness some humans who are struggling to speak. It turns out the simian virus that had originally wiped out humans at large has mutated into something that takes away the one thing that makes them more human than the chimps: their speech. It’s such an expected, small story development that beautifully illustrates how well the Apes team understands their own tale.
By the final moments of War for the Planet of the Apes, a flurry of goosebumps ran from my arms all the way up my spine. Days later, I’m still getting them as I write this. It is absolutely astounding to me the storytelling journey this new Apes trilogy has taken us the last six years. I hope and strongly believe that Caesar, a character bolstered by the never-less-than-incredible work of Andy Serkis, will go down as one of the greatest technical and artistic accomplishments in modern film history.
Serkis has played this character all the way from his first days as a baby chimp to his last days a leader for the new planet of the apes. In each of Caesar’s moments throughout these three movies, his eyes are impossible to miss. They draw you in. They make you feel the weight of every decision. They make you feel the conflict within his soul, as violence slowly begins to rob him of his dream. It is a travesty that Serkis will probably never get the credit he deserves for his work. Many rightfully freaked out and applauded Serkis’ work with Lord of the Rings’ Gollum. But this? This is next level. This is going to be hard to top.
This Apes trilogy is the rare bird that has not only told a whole complete story – both within and across each of the three films – but has improved each time out. I thought Dawn for the Planet of the Apes would be the high mark. I only had to wait until the next film for it to be topped. War for the Planet of the Apes somehow feels more epic and more personal all at once. I never thought I would want to see these incredibly-well-rendered apes traverse across the snow, but good God, is it a beautiful fit. The Pacific Northwest vistas are breathtaking and yet powerfully communicate the forces the apes will always be up against.
But it all comes down to the ending, a landing that War not only sticks, but does so without even a hint of stumbling. Three movies worth of story lead up to this moment. The goosebumps are undeniable. Everyone involved with this Apes trilogy has accomplished the impossible: they have used CGI monkeys (along with brave, incredible actors) to tell an incredibly human story about freedom, loss, grief, and redemption. They have proven you can build a soul within the machine, and you can lay it bare in a fashion both entertaining and heartbreaking.