War for the Planet of the Apes

1968's Planet of the Apes is a much revered classic that spawned multiple sequels and has lived on in popular culture ever since. Featuring a central performance from the beloved Charlton Heston and delivering one of the greatest endings of all time, it was an instant hit and is still remembered fondly today. So when the series was rebooted in 2011, there was considerable scepticism and doubts over whether such a project could succeed 40 years after the original. 

But Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a hugely deserved success and was such a hit that it spawned 2014's sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which was equally brilliant. So now we have War for the Planet of the Apes, with the return of director Matt Reeves (who previously took charge of Dawn).

The biggest difference between War and its two predecessors is how much the focus has shifted towards the apes. Rise was a largely human-led story, where we witnessed Caesar's upbringing by scientist Will Rodman (one of James Franco's most underrated roles), and the story Dawn was split about half and half between man and ape, as the power struggle between Caesar and his nemesis Koba came to a head and Gary Oldman's group of survivors struggled to fend for themselves in San Francisco. 

With War though, the focus is now firmly on the apes. About half an hour into the film, you realise that, apart from the attacks from a handful of soldiers, the story is firmly entrenched in the apes' struggle to maintain their territory and defend their families. As before, Andy Serkis takes center stage as the commanding leader Caesar with another stunning performance, an extraordinary role that sets a new benchmark for motion-capture and yet again shows why he is the master of CG roles. The remarkably physical role is honestly flawless and push the capabilities of the visual effects to its very limits.

In fact, the most impressive part of the film is the all around flawless quality of the visuals. We are now at a stage in filmmaking where it is pretty much impossible to tell the difference between the realism of human actors and CG characters, meaning the whole of War feels somewhat like a love letter to the CG team and there was not a single moment where I wasn't utterly convinced by the stunningly convincing visuals. When I reviewed Dawn, I stated that that was the pinnacle of visual effects but, as I had hoped, War takes it one step further again. 

It's therefore such a shame to see such impressive performances and visuals let down by a tired, lacklustre story that almost makes me feel like the series is starting to run out of ideas. Both Rise and Dawn showed their brilliance in rebooting a beloved classic by telling a vastly different origin story that placed human conflict alongside ape conflict to tell a genuinely original tale. 

But War almost feels like it is subscribing to the Marvel model of when you run out of ideas, just have a huge battle. Throughout the film, you feel the story continually losing focus on Caesar and his struggle to defend his tribe. Instead, the film defaults to a disappointingly simplistic revenge tale that feels so overdone and stale that it discredits the originality of its successors. 

Add to this the frustratingly overegged and cliched Vietnam War nods and this is one frustrating film. At one point, we even get a glimpse of graffiti declaring that this is "Ape-ocalypse Now." Oh, so subtle. In addition, Woody Harrelson's admittedly entertaining performance as central villain "The Colonel" is criminally underused and, even though he's clearly channeling Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, Harrelson deserves far more screen time here.

Almost every component of War for the Planet of the Apes is flawless and it has all the trappings of a wholly refreshing blockbuster that, like the series as a whole, has become a unique saving grace of the summer cinema season. 

It was therefore so disappointing to discover that the core story was so copy and paste that it fails to lift the film into a truly memorable experience. It still packs enough of a punch to recommend though, even if it's just to witness those immaculate visuals or Serkis' performance, which is truly unlike anything you've ever seen before.