25 July 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes review

I can't help but feel that in ten years time, we're going to look back at the Planet of the Apes prequel/reboot trilogy and be amazed. Both Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes offer smart, complex, emotionally engaging science fiction for adults on a blockbuster budget - frankly, it's a minor miracle that they even exist in a time when studios seem more risk averse than ever, never mind that they've somehow avoided the kind of interference that has hindered so many movies of late. It's that which has marked this franchise out as something truly different since the beginning, and War for the Planet of the Apes takes that to the next level by delivering not just one of the best, most satisfying conclusions to a trilogy I've ever seen, but also a genuinely brilliant and artistically uninhibited piece of cinema that is quite unlike any other big budget film you're likely to see this year.

Set a couple of years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, War for the Planet of the Apes sees Caesar and his clan at war with a military faction that are obsessively hunting them. After a peace offering from Caesar to the Colonel leading the faction backfires, Caesar orders his clan out of the woods and across a desert in order to ensure their safety - but motivated by revenge, he chooses to enter the heart of darkness in order to find and kill the Colonel himself.

Whether it be the Apocalypse Now inspired plot, a sequence evocative of The Great Escape or a score that at least to my untrained ears owes a debt of gratitude to the various films of Akira Kurosawa, War for the Planet of the Apes quite clearly has the blood of a great many classic films flowing through its veins. Ultimately, it ends up most closely resembling a biblical or historical epic - if Rise of the Planet of the Apes showed us Caesar the revolutionary and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes showed us Caesar the leader, then War for the Planet of the Apes shows us Caesar the savior, a conflicted, almost mythical figure whose external struggles are matched only by war waging within him. He's tested both physically and mentally throughout War for the Planet of the Apes, wrestling with his own humanity as he confronts someone who has almost entirely lost his own - hell, if not for the fact that most of these characters are apes, there are swathes of War for the Planet of the Apes that wouldn't seem all that out of place in a film like Martin Scorsese' Silence thanks to the kind of topics that it brings to the table.

If that sounds like a strange way to talk about a film where the main characters are talking monkeys... well, it is, but that itself should tell you all you need to know about just how atypical War for the Planet of the Apes feels as a piece of blockbuster cinema. It is without a doubt amongst the most singular tentpole features I've ever seen - I seriously doubt that there is an aspect of this film that came about from executive notes or compromise from the studio thanks to how cohesive it is as a work of art, and director/co-writer Matt Reeves handles it all brilliantly. It's a superbly directed film, one that doesn't put a foot wrong at any point and even manages to avoid some of the problems that slightly held back its predecessors - unlike Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, War for the Planet of the Apes doesn't feel the need to split its focus between the apes and the humans, instead choosing to place its focus firmly on the apes and staying there throughout.

Naturally then, War for the Planet of the Apes lives or dies on our ability to truly believe in these talking apes, but as with the previous two movies the excellent performances given across the board, the stunning CGI work supporting them and the brilliant writing throughout ensures that our suspension of disbelief is never tested. Andy Serkis is yet again perfect as Caesar, imbuing this complex and at times contradictory character with all the humanity and emotion required, but he's far from the only performance worth talking about - franchise newcomer Steve Zahn finds himself in the difficult position of having to sell us on a tragic character who mostly exists for comic relief without sucking the tension or the intelligence out of the film, but he pitches his performance at the perfect level to do exactly that.

Add to all this the gorgeous, stark cinematography of Michael Seresin and the simple fact that the story being told by War for the Planet of the Apes is fundamentally a deeply engaging one and it becomes obvious that Matt Reeves has created something truly special. 20th Century Fox have already confirmed that they intend to keep this franchise going, but it isn't needed - what we have here is quite literally a perfect conclusion to a stellar trilogy, and further entries only run the risk of watering that down. If you've seen the previous films in the franchise, seeing War for the Planet of the Apes should be a no-brainer - if not, now is the perfect time to catch up before going to see what will almost certainly end up being one of the finest pieces of blockbuster cinema this decade.

5 stars

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