By Charlie Phillips | July 25, 2017
War for the Planet of the Apes is the third film in the new series of Planet of the Apes films. Going into this movie my personal expectations were great, the filmmakers having set the bar very high for themselves with the previous films. But at the same time I had reason for concern.
I remember exiting the previous movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014 and feeling both extremely satisfied but also wondering where the series could go, i.e., while still telling a nuanced and genuinely emotional story. The first film had been the origin of the intelligent apes, while the sequel was about the heartbreakingly avoidable military conflict between humans and said apes.
Could the third installment, which promised the actual army battling the apes, be as impactful? Would this Michael Bay-worthy premise allow for scenes as affecting as when Caesar stood up to the sadistic zookeeper in the first film? Or would we instead sit slack-jawed as we watched man and ape blast each other for two-and-a-half hours?
I’m happy to report that contrary to my fears War for the Planet of the Apes is just as, if not more thoughtful, than its predecessors, with character arks that do donuts around the lawns of even the most well received Hollywood films. Right away the film defies our expectations by redefining the battle lines of the conflict in the opening scene. Rather than making it as simple as “man vs. ape,” we are shown a world where political allegiances aren’t so clear-cut. These divisions go back to the second installment, showing us that the screenwriters care about telling complicated stories with consequences.
I can count two times during the film when I was significantly moved, once almost to the point of tears. Both of these instances can be laid at the feet of the terrific interplay between the protagonist Caesar and the antagonist Colonel McCullough. “We’re not so different, you and I” is perhaps the oldest and most reviled cliché when it comes to heroes and villains, and for good reason. These “connections” between good guys and bad guy are often superficial or contrived. We roll our eyes because we still understand right and wrong.
If you see War for the Planet of the Apes prepare for your eyes to be thoroughly unrolled. Unlike most evil army guys in sci-fi, Colonel McCullough manages to be merciless and cruel but in a way that we can grasp and empathize with. And by the end of the film, while you certainly won’t be rooting for him, you will feel for his plight and the beautiful symmetry it has with Caesar’s moral struggle. In fact, on further reflection I wouldn’t be surprised if a decent chunk of the audience comes away in love with the villain.
The emotional connection invoked by the characters is only enhanced by the superb quality of the effects work. Each and every ape is rendered with exquisite detail and moves realistically. The camerawork is similarly well done, shots are well composed and the camera movements are creative without being intrusive. Credit must also be given to the set designers and location scouts for creating such rich environments for the film to inhabit.
I can think of only two things from this movie that left me even a little cold. The first is a new comic-relief character. He’s not terrible by any means but neither is he truly hilarious and ultimately he is comically overshadowed by what is perhaps the oldest piece of ape-related humor there is. Though I must say that the movie wheels out this old stinker very effectively. My other complaint is that one problem is dealt with in an exceedingly facile nature. What would have normally been a massive obstacle is swept away in under a minute. These two insignificant nitpicks aside, War for the Planet of the Apes is an emotionally powerful and creative installment in a series that has proved itself as being a cut above the summer competition. In a movie environment that favors snark and spectacle over heart, it stands out as a real treat.
In the year 400 BC, Zeus in the form of a golden beam of light visited a mortal woman. The result of this union was a demigod! Charlie Phillips . . . is not that demigod, but he is a fan of non sequitur, and comic books too if you can believe it. Charlie is a student at James Madison University where he studies Media Arts and Design. Currently he works as a writer for ComicBlitz and in television development.