War for the Planet of the Apes isn't the masterpiece I hoped it'd be. As someone deeply invested in the characters however, it's still a highly satisfying, emotionally- profound final chapter for the trilogy. War also compensates for its relative lack of allegory/social commentary with an intricately complex (and rather poetic) character/story structure, adding new merits to the franchise even if dissatisfying others.
I've been studying/writing about the entire Planet of the Apes franchise for the month leading up to my first viewing of War. Down the line (probably when the director's commentary comes out), I'll revisit my thoughts. For now, here are my impressions.
Matt Reeves returns from Dawn with equitable ambition, making this the best-directed of the trilogy, addressing all of my primary issues from the previous film. Most notably, the pacing is better than Dawn's, with the emotional core always at the forefront and never sidelined. This film still doesn't have the unrelenting momentum of Rise, but it never dragged for me, and felt shorter than 2 hours (as opposed to the 2+ hour runtime). This was enhanced by the riveting (but admittedly sparse) action sequences, especially one not far into the film, which had me on edge. The sense of scope was far more realized in this film, venturing through different landscapes while not feeling claustrophobic, and implying a massive new world of unknown territory. Overall this was an ambitious film, but it didn't innovate from Dawn as Dawn innovated from Rise- -at the time shooting in the mud and rain, now opting for a tamer, snowy environment.
Visually, this is nothing short of a spectacle. The (borderline R-rated) Holocaust imagery is genuinely haunting and unsettling, and crafts a unique tone with the sci-fi premise. Chinlund's production design is more enthralling than Dawn's, even if more greenscreen was used to get the result, contradicting the ambitious physical sets from before. The cinematography by Seresin also improves here, achieving some rather interesting shots, if still less engaging than the symbolic photography from Rise. As for the CG, I'm blown away. As good as the previous films were, there were still moments in which the effects were noticeably computer-generated. In War. . . the effects are flawless--so seamless that I never once actually saw "CGI". The effects in here are no less than groundbreaking. Spectacle isn't everything though, as there were various, smaller directorial flaws woven throughout.
For one, the title card didn't match the style of the first two films, and the highlights of the former films' titles felt shoehorned-in. Also consider the distracting Coke truck in the middle of nowhere, and the ridiculously thin layers of snow covering the tunnels. How much effort would it have taken to show the characters digging or mining through stone? I can mostly excuse these smaller flaws on merits of the meticulously- crafted story.
This is the sole film of the trilogy which wasn't written or adapted from a draft by Rick Jaffa/Amanda Silver, who retrospectively had a better understanding of the franchise's allegorical implications than Reeves/Bomback (who wrote this film). Now, Reeves knows how to create a brilliantly-layered story (not sure about Bomback), but his efforts left much to be desired in the way of commentary/allegory. There are clear (and often brutal) allusions to the Holocaust, with depictions of scapegoating minorities for predicaments the accuser is guilty of. In the way of contemporary commentary, the humans are trying to build a wall which ultimately proves useless (remind you of anything?). All in all though, it doesn't reflect the series' core allegory of racism very well, presenting nothing especially insightful or impressive. The final culprits are a handful of "Did they really just do that?" plot conveniences, mainly the tunnels with conveniently placed holes, but where the writing actually thrives in this film is structure.
In War, we're presented with an abundance of reversals/reflections on the former films' themes. Consider that for the first time since Rise, Caesar finds himself in a cage and inciting a revolution. We also see him abused with water, and fed slop. Also consider the dramatic irony/poetic justice of the virus: designed by humans, activating the speech centers/enhancing intelligence for apes, now doing the precise opposite for humans, effectively switching their roles in a quite literal interpretation of Planet of the Apes' core reversal. Additionally, Alpha Omega isn't just an easter egg--it's about this film as the end of a trilogy and the beginning of a vast mythology, accentuating the motifs within the film.
Character structure in War is also impressive. For example, Caesar kills Nova's father. This draws a parallel between Caesar and the Colonel (who previously killed Caesar's family). This turn not only reflects Caesar's disillusionment with humanity, but incites another parallel with his former opponent, Koba. Note that the now-orphaned Nova is a reflection of young Caesar, growing up and learning to sign with the reverse species. The performances are strong all-around, and there's not much new to be said (also I'm butting heads with IMDb's word limit). I'll add that I really enjoyed the tragic/comedic character of Bad Ape, and that Serkis was brilliant yet again.
I still find Doyle's score for Rise to be the best of the trilogy, but Giacchino manages a noticeable improvement from his work on Dawn. Though still simple in orchestration, the music feels far more realized/developed here, and some nice new themes are added to the fold. I would have liked to hear more Goldsmith sensibilities (and Doyle's themes), but what we got was fantastic nonetheless.
Not long after screening this film, I wanted to watch it again. Had this movie integrated more intelligent commentary and allegorical content, this could have been the second masterpiece within the Apes franchise, next to the 1968 film. I just hope that Fox keeps their damn dirty paws off my Apes until there's another story worth telling.
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