I always have a chuckle whenever I start watching one of the new Planet of the Apes films. It’s a franchise that kind of lurks in the back of your mind, with you only remembering it when a new sequel is coming out. You never say “Oh, I’d like to watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” right now, or “hmm, I wonder when the new Planet of the Apes” movie is coming out?” It’s just there, a group of solid films without a strong fandom, resurging every couple of years to request our attention, which we happily give and immediately forget about. And when we watch new ones, we forget that they were so good. Hence why I chuckle, because it’s just silly to see an ape hanging out with his ape wife and ape family in an ape tree city at the beginning of War for the Planet of the Apes, until I remember that “hey, these movies are good, best not to laugh.”
But War for the Planet of the Apes is no laughing matter. The movie is both a vivid display of dazzling special effects and a strong example of top-notch character development and hitting proper story beats. It injects a sense of humor through a new bumbling ape character while never losing the scope of its story. It doesn’t come off as too grandiose or too subtle, its right where it needs to be when hitting its themes of evolution, mankind’s penchant for war, and the beauties and horrors of true human, and ape, nature.
This movie focuses on the events of the aftermath of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, where humankind is in dwindling numbers and those that do exist are starting to lose their ability to speak as a result of the simian flu virus. Caesar still advocates for peace but Woody Harrelson and his immaculately-shaved head war cronies won’t accept that, so they set out to extinguish the remaining apes while preparing for an attack from a rival human military faction.
The stuff with Caesar and Woody is the best of the film, a careful portrayal of one species trying to hold on as long as it can to being evolution’s top dog, despite the forces of nature pushing so hardly in favor of apekind. Caesar and Woody really are a match made in heaven, two foes of equal strength and intelligence, fearful of the capacity of each other’s destruction, but with a strange mutual respect and an even stronger mutual hatred. Some of the stuff is fairly predictable, you can guess 10 scenes ahead what character will do what, what situation will unfold onto whom, but it still comes off as a surprise when it happens. And the film’s climax and satisfying ending are the extra whip cream on this already delicious, furry cake.
I think a reason we forget about these Apes movies is that we remember movies for their actors; “Oh, that movie has George Clooney in it,” “oh yeah, Kevin Spacey is the bad guy in this one.” You can’t really go as far to say that Andy Serkis is actually “in” this movie, regardless of how masterful his performance is. That’s just the sad fact of these films, they’ll never be appreciated for how good they are because we can’t tie a strong human to them. It’s also a sad deal because Andy Serkis will probably never get the credit he deserves as one of the world’s best actors, because he’s really just lending his facial movements to CGI-renderings.
I’m usually against motion capture, I think its fad on its tail end of life, with these Apes movies, thankfully, being one of the last uses we’ll see of it. But that distaste for motion capture stems from cinema’s historic inability to use it well (Mars Needs Moms) anyone, or using it when there’s no need to at all. The only exception has been whenever Andy Serkis has been around, he’s quite literally an actor that was born for this kind of technology, at most in tune with his artistic self when he’s standing in front of a green screen with a bunch of white motion capture balls taped awkwardly around his body. Regardless of my feelings about motion capture, I am happy that Serkis got to provide his face for this film, because he brought what will probably be a forgotten but truly wonderful trilogy to life.