Poor old Caesar. The genetically-enhanced, intelligent chimp has witnessed the rise of the apes and the fall of humanity; the birth of one civilisation and the gradual death of another.
Through 2011’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (directed by Rupert Wyatt) to 2014’s Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (with Matt Reeves taking over directing duties), we’ve seen how humans have succumbed to an outbreak of a deadly virus, and how an uneasy truce between our species and the apes disintegrated thanks to Caesar’s vengeful second-in-command, Koba (Toby Kebbell).
Caesar, played so effortlessly by a performance-captured Andy Serkis, has long been the focal point of Fox’s rebooted Apes franchise: a constant in a series of films where the human cast comes and goes. War For The Planet Of The Apes once again pushes this noble, conflicted leader’s morality to its breaking point. Fifteen years on from the virus we saw in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, the fight between humans and their hairy ancestors has reached a bloody new phase.
Thanks to Koba, an army led by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) seeks to exterminate the apes – and with a battle at the apes’ secret woodland hideout leaving Caesar’s tribe exposed and vulnerable, the leader heads off on a personal mission to take McCullough and divert his forces away from the fleeing apes.
An earthy, downbeat blend of western, war film and post-apocalyptic sci-fi, War For The Planet Of The Apes continues the series’ tradition of thoughtful, intelligent storytelling. Reeves immediately brought his own style to the franchise in Dawn – its use of real locations and digital apes providing a breathtaking sense of realism – and it’s something he pushes even further here. With the story moving from dank woodland to desolate beaches and on to rugged, snowy mountain regions, Michael Seresin’s cinematography has a grand, epic sweep like something from a John Ford movie.
Yet War is also a more introspective, intimate story than those that came before it: the years of combat and leadership are beginning to tell on Caesar, and it’s plain that he’s beginning to inherit some of the coldness and hatred for humans from his old comrade, Koba. As Caesar wrestles with his anger and morality, it falls to the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), and two new characters – a mute human girl (Amiah Miller) and a timid, wide-eyed chimpanzee, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) – to provide a hint of warmth.
The movie needs it, too, because even compared to the previous Apes entries, War is startlingly bleak and intense – written by Reeves and Mark Bomback, the story once again finds intolerance and cruelty on both sides. As McCullough, the film’s own Colonel Kurtz, Harrelson provides a fearsome villain – albeit one with a logical motivation behind his brutal actions. War is far from the first movie to draw from Apocalypse Now and its inspiration, Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness (a splash of graffiti even reads ‘Ape-Pocalypse Now’), but this is far from a genre pastiche – Reeves takes cues from this and other great moments in cinema to create something quite new and individual. The guerilla (or is that gorilla?) warfare in the snow recalls John Milius’ batty Cold War invasion fantasy Red Dawn; the bleached-out, high-contrast visuals are strikingly reminiscent of Fritz Lang, David Lean and Akira Kurosawa.
Amid the gloom, there’s a stark kind of beauty: aerial shots of huge gun-battles, apes riding across a deserted beach – one of several nods to the 1968 Planet Of The Apes film that started it all. What’s doubly remarkable is how easy it is to forget that we’re even watching digital characters; the actors’ performances and cutting-edge visual effects now mingle so seamlessly that Reeves’ lens can stare deep into an ape’s eyes and reveal the humanity eerily looking back out at us. When the action cuts from the haunted stare of Amiah Miller’s orphan to Maurice’s limpid, compassionate gaze, it’s nigh-on impossible to tell which is digital and which is flesh and blood. It really is an astonishing achievement.
Then again, War For The Planet Of The Apes sees everyone involved at the height of their creative powers. With a wonderful use of shadow and changing focus, Reeves brings a tenderness and lightness of touch to the drama scenes, while the action has all the weight and horror of a war film. Michael Giacchino’s music is a textured mix of modern and classic; there are nods here and there to the score from the 1968 original – a further sign that history is drawing closer to the events of that movie. And then there’s Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar: once again, he’s the series’ lynchpin.
Smart, thrilling, visually stunning, War For The Planet Of The Apes isn’t just a great summer movie – it’s truly great cinema.
War For The Planet Of The Apes is out in UK cinemas on the 11th July.