Films Of 2017: War For The Planet Of The Apes (9th place)
NB: The following contains spoilers for War For The Planet Of The Apes.
Before 2011, we’d have been happy to get one genuinely great Planet Of The Apes movie. What we could never have predicted is that it would become one of the most satisfying and consistently brilliant film trilogies in recent history.
The premise was bold right from its inception: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes depicted the fall of humanity and the ascent of a new species not from our perspective, but from that of Caesar, played with stunning depth by Andy Serkis. Sure, there were humans tottering about in director Rupert Wyatt’s apocalyptic drama, including Will Rodman (James Franco), the scientist who unwittingly triggered the civilisation-ending ALZ-112 virus in the first place. But the film arguably belonged to the super-intelligent chimpanzee, Caesar: a creature fated to live halfway between ape and man – shunned by the latter, but keenly understanding of their plight thanks to his friendship with Rodman.Rise was a prequel to all those other classic Apes movies, sure, but it also cast the story from an angle that would have been difficult – if not impossible – with the practical effects of the 60s and 70s.
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, directed by Matt Reeves and released in 2015, took the concept a step further, taking us fully into a post-apocalyptic future where humanity has retreated to the fringes, and the intelligent apes have begun to assemble the beginnings of an advanced society.
With Caesar again the focal point, Dawn told a story of operatic proportions – a story of betrayal and two civilisations dragged to an inescapable war. In this year’s War For The Planet Of The Apes, the saga reaches its dramatic conclusion: we’ve known all along that the human race was on borrowed time, but in this movie, we discover what leads to its final, dying gasp.
Again directed by Matt Reeves, War sees the trilogy scale new heights of filmmaking sophistication. The second film saw the series leave the comfort of Hollywood sound stages for real locations, and the mix of cutting-edge performance capture and dank North American forests was a sight to behold. Reeves and his team go a step further in War, as the story takes us from desolate beaches to huge military strongholds in the snow; seldom has a film with so many effects shots felt so organic. This is a Hollywood blockbuster by way of Coppola or Kurosawa.
Most importantly, the CGI trickery is tied to a classic story of struggle and survival. An army controlled by a despotic leader, the Kurtz-like McCullough (an intimidating Woody Harrelson) has led a deadly surprise attack on the apes, and so Caesar, plus a small group of his closest allies, heads across country to exact revenge. Once an advocate of peace, Caesar now seems in danger of losing the empathy and compassion that separated him from the warlike Koba, his traitorous second-in-command in the last film.
As the apes set off on their lengthy and doom-laden journey, though, events conspire to bring Caesar back from the brink. First, he meets an orphaned, human girl who can no longer speak; then he meets the wide-eyed Bad Ape (a charmingly tender Steve Zahn), a fellow chimpanzee who reveals that there are many others like Caesar’s tribe. Caesar also begins to see echoes of himself in McCullough, a soldier who, through all his anger and bluster, is simply fighting for his species’ survival; in a brilliant turn, the virus that first brought the human civilisation to its knees has now mutated. Those infected with it lose their ability to think or speak like humans.
War For The Planet Of The Apes is, therefore, about two civilisations on a crossroads: one on the ascent, the other on the cusp of winking out for good. McCullough represents the dwindling one’s final shriek of fury; Caesar, who overcomes his own rage and leads his people to a mythical promised land, becomes the symbol of a new, better world.
For the past six years, the revived Planet Of The Apes franchise has provided the kind of large-canvas filmmaking that seemed in danger of vanishing from our cinema screens: it has all the awe-inspiring scale of an old biblical epic, the stunning effects of a sci-fi film, all wrapped up in a compelling, thoughtful story. Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves evidently put their heart and souls into these movies; in front of the camera, so too have such performers as Andy Serkis, Steve Zahn, Terry Notary, Toby Kebbel and Karin Konoval, who brought so much life and nuance to the apes. The studio behind the Apes movies, 20th Century Fox, is now in the hands of Disney.
Caesar’s story is complete. Right now, it’s unclear whether there’ll be more entries in the franchise; we can, at least, be grateful that modern Hollywood gave rise to such a humane and brilliant trilogy of movies.