Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Film Review: A great trilogy comes to an unforgettable end in the bold, emotional War for the Planet of the Apes

When I first saw the trailers for the seemingly fun and light hearted Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I can't say I ever expected to be feeling what I'm feeling now that the trilogy has come to an end. Rise was an enjoyable film, occasionally marred by its internal battle between light hearted ape antics and serious medical science but it worked on the strength of the narrative and its beating emotional core. What came next, Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was essentially the perfect sequel: it raised the stakes, darkened the mood, ramped up the tension and boosted the heart. Heading into the trilogy's close, I sat down in my local cinema with one question on my mind as the War for the Planet of the Apes title card hit the screen: can they top things yet again with the final act?

Ultimately, I'd put War a peg above Rise but a notch below Dawn if you asked me to rank the series. Still, that's a pretty great position to be in. Across two directors and four writers, we've been treated to the seemingly impossible: a film trilogy where all parts have their own distinct personality yet are beautifully tied together through narrative and emotion. In every sense of the word, War is a stunning film. It looks terrific and the emotional weight of its final act will hit you like freight train. I would argue it's one of the best trilogy concluding films of all time.

Things pick up some time after the events of Dawn. Caesar (Andy Serkis, Oscar-worthy) and his clan are hiding out in the woods when they are attacked by a small military branch known as Alpha-Omega. Agreeing that the apes cannot remain in San Francisco, Caesar begins a plan to relocate his clan across a desert. One final assault on the ape base proves costly, as Caesar is forced into changing his plan to something infinitely more personal. The rest of the clan make their way to the border while Caesar and a few of his closest allies march to the Alpha-Omega base so that he can take out their leader, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). 

War is a film that isn't afraid to take on bold symbolism - Caesar's status as the apes' leader verges on biblical territory, while a scenario at the military base brings humanity back to the dark ages of slavery - but it refuses to let them overwhelm the film. Writers Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback understand that this is Caesar's story, and they simply let us follow him. Scenes away from his side are rare, the film almost never grants a full sequence to the humans. We've followed Caesar his entire life, it only seems right that this final film should belong to him.

Even with this in mind, though, War brings in a terrific roster of supporting characters. Harrelson's villain is a runaway success, a darkened man visibly harrowed by his experiences yet expressing himself in violent, dangerous ways. Harrelson plays the role effortlessly, a scene between him and Caesar that just lets the pair talk is beautiful in how it brings all the pieces to the table without feeling expository. Their final sequence together is ingenious, a perfect encapsulation of what their characters represent and what their journeys have been for. It's a conclusion that many will probably see coming, but that doesn't lessen the act even slightly.

Steve Zahn's Bad Ape is another notable highlight. A heartbreaking backstory coupled with some brilliant comedy - a moment involving a pair of binoculars will have you laughing well after the scene's ended - Bad Ape is an unforgettable character, even with minimal screen time. Humour was an element lacking from Dawn - if the film has a flaw, it's its unrelenting bleakness - so its return here is welcomed with open arms. This is a tense film, at times almost unbearably so, but Bad Ape's light hearted, lovable humour helps to relief the tension at key moments. Reeves demonstrates pinpoint accuracy for his characters, understanding each and every one of them and the role they play not only within the story but also within the film. Good or bad, human or ape, everyone on screen here is expertly written.

War opens with an impressively tense action sequence, but soon after this it quietens down, focuses on the characters and the general direction the story will take - and it's almost done wordlessly. Through sign language, mood-encapsulating cinematography and motion capture so crystal clear you almost question how they found real apes classically trained in acting, War pulls us into its world stunningly. The ape's base feels established, there's a homeliness to it even amid the violent battle diversions. It's a world that feels real and genuine and crafted with heart and soul, it goes a long way in making such a preposterous premise so believable.

War slows down notably in its middle act, but its finale is more than enough to make up for that. A non-stop barrage of intense action set pieces and spontaneous yet justified character decisions, Matt Reeves crafts a homestretch worthy of the history books. Ape sacrifices will make you well up, avalanches will shatter your central nervous system. Its a relentless final act, but its rooted in the characters and who we know them to be. The film's final ten minutes are more emotionally powerful than my words here can ever justify, a beautiful ending to a trilogy set in darkness. Reeves can rest assured his conclusion won't be forgotten any time soon.

In A Sentence

With the breathtaking technical effects to match its stunning emotional core, Matt Reeves' War for the Planet of the Apes is both a satisfying conclusion to a great trilogy and a fantastically powerful science fiction film in its own right.

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