Frankly, when Fox announced a (second) reboot of their beloved Planet of the Apes franchise back in 2010 it elicited little more than a resigned sigh from me. When news came that the apes would be fully realised with CGI my heart sank.
As a long-time fan of the original series of films (I saw most of them at the cinema in the early 1970s) I’d already been burned by the reboot attempted by Tim Burton a decade before this most recent announcement, in 2001. That film still arguably stands as Burton’s worst (even though it had some great design and make-up work).
Still I trudged dutifully into the cinema in 2011 to see James Franco kickstart the Rise of the Planet of the Apes and came out two hours later with a pleasantly surprised smile on my face. Rupert Wyatt’s prequel reimagining (and my fingers tremble even just typing that phrase) was a thoughful and engaging movie, and the work of the actors (including Andy Serkis) and animators meshed almost seamlessly to give us an exciting new take on the apes.
My surprise grew to actual anticipation for Matt Reeve’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014 and I was not disappointed. The visuals improved again and we were given an even more exciting and thought-provoking story with Caeser (Serkis) doing his best not to lead his apes into war against mankind’s few survivors of the simian plague which had all but wiped them out at the close of the previous movie.
By now I was actually excited to see Matt Reeves, Andy Serkis and co. return for the third film in this respectful but fresh series of films, and I’m happy to say that War for the Planet of the Apes not only met my expectations but far exceeded them.
First a word about the ape work. The actors and animators combine talents here to give the most astonishing performances yet seen in motion capture. These apes live, breathe and feel to such a high level that it simply becomes impossible to look at them as special effects. For me, Caesar, Maurice, Rocket, “Bad Ape” (a hugely enagaging new character) and the other apes have reached a point where you feel the awards bodies should really be bringing in a new category to recognise these remarkable types of roles.
The story opens with Caesar’s clan fighting against a human military faction called Alpha-Omega. Once again Caesar attempts to take the higher ground by moving the apes to another location, one which will see them leave the worsening human aggression behind. But Alpha-Omega’s leader, a mysterious, Colonel Kurtz-like character (played with layered gusto by Woody Harrelson) soon escalates events to a very personal level, taking Caeser on a mission which will see the leader tested as never before.
War of the Planet of the Apes is constantly surprising and totally enthralling, it continues in the vein of the best of the Apes films by telling a story which is both thoughtful and exciting. It leads towards a war of almost biblical proportions, but one whose combatants are something of a surprise. As with the very best summer blockbusters, Reeves and his team give us exactly what they promise, just not in exactly the way we might expect.
Kudos also to the screenplay (by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves), to Michael Seresin’s beautiful cinematography and also to Michael Giacchino for a truly memorable score, one that reminded me of John Barry’s work in several places. These combine to give a movie which really should be experienced at a cinema.
The film is also surprisingly emotional (I was weeping openly at the finish) and if this turns out to be the final film of a trilogy (highly unlikely, right Fox…?), then it will end as a triumph. We have been gifted with two wonderful runs of Apes movies and this latest trilogy is proof that an old idea can have new life breathed into it in the right hands.
Summer 2017 has seen a remarkable run of truly excellent movies and this might just be the best of an exceptional bunch. It’s definitely the best of the new Apes trilogy.