Bigger means better has long been Hollywood’s default setting. Larger budgets allow for expanded casts, more exotic locations and mightier explosions to blow up bigger landmarks into even tinnier pieces – all in the name of ensuring people buy more tickets again. That’s why Avengers: Infinity War, the upcoming 19th film in the MCU, is set to feature every Marvel hero known to man – along with a few we’ve never heard of before. How else will audiences be entertained if we don’t constantly bombard them with a constant supply of budget-bulging cataclysmic action sequences?
War for the Planet of the Apes is the antithesis to this preconception. Having already delivered a prequel that wasn’t a complete disaster and a sequel that was deeper and more compelling than the original, the third instalment of the rebooted series again subverts expectations by eschewing the ballistics-heavy battles promised in its title. Instead, it offers a intimate and sombre tale of a highly intelligent ape grappling with his darker instincts. And it’s all the more powerful for it.
That being said, the movie kicks off with an almighty skirmish as a camo-striped strike force drop into the apes’ woodland hideout and engage in a grim and gritty gunfight among the trees. The soldiers are searching for Caesar, the highly evolved chimpanzee who led his kind to freedom from the humans, who has been so long withdrawn from view that he has taken on an almost mythical status among the human troops. But when the arboreal assault results in unimaginable losses for Caesar, he’s forced to come out of hiding to embark on a revenge-fuelled mission to kill Woody Harrleson’s sadistic Colonel, and end the war once and for all.
This perilous journey ‘upriver’ in search of a psychotic military leader will undoubtedly prompt comparisons with Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory masterpiece Apocalypse Now – indeed, one piece of graffiti scrawled onto the walls of Alpha Omega’s military compound makes the obligatory Ape-pocalypse Now gag. Yet, as Caesar, along with his three closest advisors, Maurice, Luca and Rocket, and a mute young girl they rescue along the way, rides out onto the breathtaking California vistas, War more closely brings to mind epic westerns of the 1950s. Even the likes of Ben-Hur and the Ten Commandments get referenced, Caesar’s quest taking on Biblical proportions as he confronts his demons and becomes tasked with freeing his kind and leading them to a promised land across the desert.
As the conflicted Caesar, Andy Serkis is a formidable presence, bringing a Shakespearian sense of grandeur to the simian leader. It’s not just the ape-like physicality that he nails, though. So much of Caesar’s troubles are internalised: having spent much of Dawn failing to convince Koba to let go of his hatred towards humans, he now finds himself consumed by rage for the Colonel and has to battle with his baser bloodlust. That Serkis is able to convey these complex emotions by making subtle tweaks to his furrowed brow is truly remarkable. The digital technology has taken another dramatic leap forward – the verisimilitude in the texture of the apes’ damp, matted fur is astounding – yet it would all be for nought were it not for the delicate craftsmanship of the film’s performers.
With so much of the focus on his personal circumstances, it’s somewhat inevitable that the broader divide between apes and humans is not quite as nuanced as we saw in Dawn. Still, many of the humans characters are given enough layers to make them compelling. None more so that Woody Harrelson’s swivel-eyed warmonger, the Colonel. Though initial seen as a cruel, Kurtz-a-like crackpot who’s beyond redemption, he’s granted additional depth by an unexpected plot pivot that lends a reason to his vicious acts. Suddenly, we realise he’s not too different to his anthropoid antagonist – he just a little further along the road to ruin.
It’s not all bleak introspection and grim determination, though – War offers up a surprising level of comic relief. This mostly comes via Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape, a hermitic chimp who escaped from a zoo after the outbreak of Simian Flu and somehow manages to charm his way into Caesar’s troop. There’s a Dobby-esque warmth to be found in his hapless enthusiasm to help his new friends, and his heartwarming journey from loneliness to valued member of the tribe is a rare fuzzy moment that helps to lighten proceedings when they threaten to become too entrapped in darkness.
Of course, War is not completely without action and when the epic final showdown between the warring species inevitably comes to pass, it’s an exhilaratingly well executed cacophony of fur and fireballs that would make Michael Bay blanche. Yet it remains an entertaining sideshow to Caesar’s more sombre, though no less gripping, attempts to seek redemption. It’s a bold, original, and incredibly powerful conclusion that finally allows Serkis to showcase his so often overlooked talents and also brings this groundbreaking trilogy to a memorable, wholly satisfying close. Turns out, bigger isn’t always better after all.
Runtime: 140 mins (approx.)
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenwriters: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves
Stars: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Amiah Miller, Steve Zahn