Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, 139 minutes, PG-13
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Michael Adamthwaite, Max Lloyd-Jones, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer
There are certain films where one can trace a direct line from the socio-political landscape to the sentiments within. A better film historian than I, a mere critic, could list a multitude of masterpieces that qualify. Cementing its place right on that list is director Matt Reeves’ heartrending closing chapter in the APES franchise, WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Even in a pitch-black bleak world turned upside-down, it finds staggering beauty and heart. Reeves and his entire company have crafted incomparable work with their gripping, gorgeously-rendered, and highly emotional feature. Simply put, this study of humanity is phenomenal CINEMA.
Caesar (Andy Serkis, who gives a tour-de-force performance) and his squad are in a war for survival – a war they’re reluctant to engage in – protecting their stronghold deep in the forest from the militant human forces. Things turn ugly when the human leader of this army, ruthless mercenary Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), assassinates Caesar’s wife (Judy Greer) and older son (Max Lloyd-Jones). While Caesar sends the remaining primates to find a new home, he sets out on mission fueled by revenge, joined by chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite).
Tonally speaking, it runs the gamut of emotions. The first act of Reeves and Mark Bomback’s screenplay is unabashedly serious. Our attachments to the characters are formed and re-formed. The villain, who is very Col. Kurtz-like in his madness, is set up as an imposing, impenetrable force. We see glimpses of Caesar’s heart when they cross paths with a mysterious, mute girl (Amiah Miller), but mostly his life is filled with darkness.
That’s what makes it such a blessing when Steve Zahn’s character, “Bad Ape”, is introduced into their tight-knit unit in act two. A welcome jolt of comic relief, he’s the perfect “half-man,” a survivor whose knowledge of the archetypal monster can help the protagonist. It’s also a term befitting him in that he looks like a short-statured man. The other members of Caesar’s gang also show their compassion and grace here. Luca picking the pink flowers in bloom in the icy chill of the snow (a metaphor) is the most indelible image. Thinking about it leaves me with a lump in my throat. The filmmakers subtly juxtapose staggering splendor, empathy and hope against the stark reality of war.
Act three is reserved for the gut-wrenching emotional stakes to pay off, and for the action-packed showdown at the “AO” Corral (the human army uses the alpha and omega symbols to reiterate this is the beginning and the end of the series). War is about fear and foolishness. It’s difficult not to think of the horrors of our own history (e.g. slavery and the Holocaust) when one ape is required to whip another ape – a la SON OF SAUL and 12 YEARS A SLAVE.
The filmmakers are unapologetic in their homages to APOCALYPSE NOW. Though McCullough shaves his head in a very Kilgore-ian reveal, he errs more on the side of Kurtz, face-paint and all. His twisted idealism has morphed into madness, and the scribblings and papers in his cave-like office echo Kurtz’s jungle temple of insanity. “Ape-ocalypse Now!” is even graffti’d on a tunnel wall.
Dialogue defiantly remains sparse. Michael Giacchino’s score fills the spaces elegantly, augmenting the character-driven dramatics. Reeves’ imagery, which emphasizes gorgeous symmetry, and Michael Seresin’s sparkling cinematography are the beauty against the rubble on screen. There’s not a bad shot to be found. Plus this film would be nowhere if not for the spectacle of the mo-cap actors and animators. Their work is nothing short of a masterstroke. Oscars need to be doled out early for this. They get across heap tons of powerful emotion in their eyes and in their physicality. You’ll cry, so bring tissues.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is a genuine feat in storytelling and technology, hooking into the original mythology whilst re-inventing and re-invigorating it. It’s something to be seen – and assuredly to feel.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES opens on July 14.