“It’s all in the eyes.”
That is how I describe the technical marvels that are the Planet of the Apes “Caesar films”, as I’ll call them here. While this review will specifically address the third film, I want to briefly get you all up to speed with these films.
It’s a tough thing to follow the film legacy of the original Planet Of The Apes films (and subsequent television programs) that began in the 1960s. Despite their age, they are undeniable classics. Alongside that, it’s difficult to convince skeptics to revisit the idea of it all after Tim Burton’s much-maligned reinvisioning several years ago. Yet, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes released in August 2011 with much to deal with. First, it had to be a quality film on its own, but secondly, it also had to address the heritage before it in its own way. It focused on the first point, primarily, with only subtle hints to the other films. It’s primary distinction was its showcasing of Andy Serkis as Caesar; motion capture technology allowed the actor to play the character from adolescence to adulthood. His character is the spark behind the upheaval, and everything hinged on him. Serkis delivered beautifully. Was it a perfect film? No, but it did more right than most blockbusters. Its primary contribution to the Caesar films is its establishment of the catalyst for the world-change, providing an emotional introduction to understanding Caesar and the others who would be primary players in the ape society moving forward, and proving that a CGI non-human character can carry a film as lead.
The 2014 sequel, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, elevated the story to new heights. It not only showed how apes formed society; it made you care about them. When factional divides between apes, men, and within the ranks of both prevented a peaceful existence, you understood the motivations of everyone involved and cared for the resolution to the conflict central to the film’s plot. The characters were not only in service to a plot; you understood them as family members, friends, enemies, and all of the ways that connect people. Essentially, the apes felt “human” in the best sense of the word, and often, if any side in the conflict was going to “succeed”, I, at least, found myself rooting for the apes. By the end of Dawn, in two film’s time, we had witnessed Caesar grow from birth to lead a new society, head his own family, and face dissent and hate from both ape and humans alike. That film closes with a visual motif that is often repeated in the films: a focus on the ape’s eyes. On one hand, what better way to showcase the visual effects than to go for the “make-it-or-break-it” gateway through the uncanny valley? On the other, it’s the best way for us to gain connection with our lead.
So when it comes to the third film, we open with a written refresher of the events thus far. After the opening of Dawn, there was no way to one-up it, so this was a safe way to open and acclimate any people coming into the story at this point. In the time following Dawn, Caesar and his tribe have pulled back into the forests, following the aftermath of that film’s climax. The military forces that exist in the fallen state of the world have pressed them into seclusion, and Caesar finds himself as the ape leader answering for all of the anarchy introduced by the dissident ape, Koba. The pressures of leadership show on his fur, with the whitened strands of his face writing out the toll that comes with the crown. A small recon team led by Caesar’s son, Blue Eyes, informs the tribe that there is a place for them in safety over the mountains, a place to call home.
If only life was as we dream it. After Caesar shows mercy to human soldiers after a fierce battle in the woods causing heavy casualties on both sides, that battalion’s leader, the Colonel (played by Woody Harrelson), still retaliates, seeking vengeance specifically on Caesar. This act kicks off a personal vendetta between the two that carries us through the film.
Along the way, we meet several new characters better left to your own discovery. In fact, this film is best left that way. While marketing can give away far too much of a film prior to release, this one keeps the bulk hidden from the trailers, a rare feat these days. While I seek to keep things unspoiled, let’s just say that there is a blurring of the lines between what it means to be man and ape, and it’s fascinating to watch. This film is much darker than the previous films, but also, this is the one with the most intentional comedy. The audience of my showing laughed throughout, and that levity was necessary as we follow Caesar through this dark chapter. Matt Reeves proved his directing prowess to me the last film, but he furthers that here. He truly has a mastery on how to frame shots and sequences in visually engaging ways. For a film that is often in subtitles and mannerisms, it needs someone to engage the audience in other ways than speech, and Reeves always keeps things exciting.
While there were apes on horseback in the last film, that sight is still terrifying here; when we add to that the increased human military presence of this film, the visual clash between primitive weapons alongside firearms and explosives is absolutely exhilirating. The film is called War for a reason, and it doesn’t disappoint. There are large stakes in this film for both sides, and you feel it. At no point did I feel that empty feeling that comes often with special effects heavy films. No, there is a real weight to all of the proceedings, and much of that is found in “the eyes”.
What am I talking about? The strength of this film (these films, rather) is in the performances. When we meet Caesar in this film, he has tears welling in his eyes. He takes no joy in military victory when he knows the cost behind it. We, the audience, know that too. Why? It’s in the eyes. You feel Serkis and the other performers in this film. I would say that this entry is the most personal for Caesar yet, and you understand his emotions all the way through because of the masterful use of special effects. This film is a showcase for the power of motion capture today, and it’s truly a delight to watch.
The music, again, evokes what came before, while still bringing distinction to itself (the 20th Century Fox logo comes to us this time with a primal sense of percussion, and it sets the tone immediately). Woody Harrelson, whose motivations I won’t spoil, has his own screen presence that grabs your attention, even while being swept away in watching the apes. He was a great choice in casting, and while the human dynamic here is far less likable and sympathetic than in films’ past, you understand him and his men. The cruelty of a fallen world has changed man in ways, and you can understand cruelty reflected back.
From a content perspective, it is a violent film. Death abounds, as does cruelty. While there is the aforementioned humor, I would caution parents to consider the violence before taking small children. The primate section of any zoo is often the most visited, but kids may never want to go back after the intensity of scenes here. There is no sexual content to worry about, nor was there any noteworthy uses of foul language; again, much of this film is from the perspectives of apes who use sign-language. From a Christian perspective, there are many illusions to sacrifice throughout; devulging beyond that is too much, but the parallels between fathers and sons evokes the Bible in many ways. I found myself thinking of Caesar’s plight, in light of Moses leading the Israelites or through other Biblical leaders. Leadership is difficult, and this film shows that. Oftentimes, nations suffer for the decisions of one, and sin can affect generations to come. I’d say this film evokes those ideas as well.
The journey of Caesar in the three films stands consistently as a strong trilogy, and in my mind, it’s one of the strongest. Often, quality slips with each entry, but these films get stronger as they go. While there is still story to tell to “fill in the gap” between the Planet Of The Apes of years’ past and the end of this film, the makers of War can rest assured they’ve did a masterwork here. I have no problem saying this is likely to be in my top three films of the year with months left to go. See it (and the other films) with your own eyes, and experience all that is offered.