I will wholeheartedly, step forward, raise my hand, and admit that this is the first ‘Planet of the Apes’ film that I have managed to sit through in its entirety. Which is not to diminish the success or quality of the previous films. Merely that there is something about a war between humans and apes that I initially struggled to become fully immersed in, and I know I am not alone.
It would appear that ‘War’ is the end of a trilogy, though I dare say there are probably more films to come, and yes, perhaps becoming engaged with the narrative at this junction suggests poor decision making on my part. One hardly begins the Lord of the Rings at ‘The Return of the King’, or starts watching Harry Potter at ‘The Deathly Hallows Part Two’, or indeed begins their Star Wars experience by watching ‘The Return of the Jedi’. Apes were simply not my cup of tea, I can’t really explain why. I did make a start watching both of the previous films, but whether it was because of the humans, the apes or the narrative, I was just never quite caught in the grasp that others have been. However, I did wish to watch at least one of these films for the simple reason of exploring how far motion capture has developed.
Motion capture/CGI has morphed into something really quite extraordinary, and continues to grow at such a phenomenal rate. I first remember seeing it, as I’m sure many do, when Gollum first appeared on screens in Lord of the Rings. The character was mesmerising, not just in appearance with his skeletal body and wispy hair, but in his facial expressions, which captured both character reactions and expressions far greater than anything we had seen in a non-animated film.
Both Gollum and Ceasar, the protagonist ape of this series, were brought to life by the really excellent Andy Serkis, who despite his mountain of talent, has managed to maintain quite a low-key life as an actor. I doubt many would utter his name in the same sentence as say, Tom Hanks, Anne Hathaway or Meryl Streep. Perhaps this is owing to Serkis investing so much time and effort in motion capture, where his face is quite literally hidden behind the characters he plays. So that unless you already know it’s Serkis going into the film, or you happen to catch his name in the credits. There is literally no possibility you will recognise him.
One could argue that this style of acting is on another level of skill. One that is normally reserved for the Indie films where characters and close-ups drive the narrative, rather than relying on those big action sequences that dominate the Box Office. I say this, because each motion capture suit, with its array of tiny dots that cover the actor’s face, is designed to pick up and translate each emotion, each facial reaction and translate them into the characters you see on screen. All of this very much begs the questions. How has Andy Serkis yet to win an Oscar? Genuinely beyond my comprehension.
The motion capture in this film is absolutely marvellous. Weta Digital, the New Zealand based company who created the effects you saw in Lord of the Rings, really are utterly superb at what they do. The level of detail for these apes is so genuinely breathtaking, and that is no exaggeration, for as you watch this film and look at every hair, every crease, every movement, and realise the entire creation is nigh on as close to perfection as one can get. Yet you just know that in less than say 5 years time, technology will have moved beyond all this once again.
Now for my reasoning, I suppose I wanted to come into the series at its most exciting point, the crux of the story. Where I knew or hoped rather, that much would happen. ‘War’ is an emotionally and morally intriguing story, one that is very true to its name from the very first scene. Surprisingly the film contains a number of the elements you would expect from a World War II epic. Each element is used with such profound meaning and symbology, that I was rather taken aback. I will admit that I horribly misjudged this film as a standard big blockbuster film, which to an extent it is, but if you look beyond that there is a real heart and empathy, with many philosophical debates at the core of the film.
From the start we experience soldiers who believe they are fighting for their very existence. Each wears a helmet with various slogans written upon them, ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’, ‘Endangered Species’, ‘Monkey Killer’, and so on. The group of soldiers also has an ape with them, those who disagree with Ceasar, the protagonist Ape whose journey the films have followed since birth and who has become the leader of the apes in their quest for survival. Those apes with the humans are derogatorily labelled as ‘Donkeys’ on their backs and appear to all be larger muscular apes. This opening scene cleverly instils upon us the flavours of the film such as existentialism, speciesism and with a number of ethical debates to add to the mix. ‘War’ very much takes advantage of the familiar structure of a Hollywood blockbuster, whilst being its own idea. There are clear influences here such as ‘The Great Escape’, and ‘Spartacus’ to name a few, however, these only enhance your viewing pleasure. Director and writer Matt Reeves cleverly weaves between these classics and the core story he wants to tell, never failing to utilise empathy and intimacy.
The antagonist of the piece The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is menacing as he is interesting, with a great deal more depth to his character than I was expecting. I will admit I had the preconceived notion he simply hated all apes, and while this is true to an extent, his reasoning is more complicated than I expected. It always surprises me how intense a performance Harrelson can deliver, given his rather hippy laid back persona whenever I have seen him on chat shows and the like. Poor form on my part that I forget how good he is at this craft, as I do love everything I see him in, and ‘War’ is no exception, providing some really excellent thought provoking scenes with Caesar.
Truth be told, that from the moment the opening lines appeared on screen, providing a perfect catch up, or a needed memory jog, I became totally enraptured by the film. Although much of it is spent travelling through desolate and forgotten landscapes, it never lost my interest as Ceasar and co travelled through the country picking up an assortment of characters, who all added to the empathic and comedic elements of the film. There is something simplistically brilliant and hilarious about the character Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a monkey who, when the virus that increased the intelligence of apes while simultaneously making humans sick, decided to run. Bad Ape is evidence that each character has their own personality, and that more importantly each adds something to the films overall feel and tone.
OVERALL **** I admit I am more than a little taken aback by the quality of this film. I approached this as a simple blockbuster, yet was treated far beyond that to a rather complex and emphatic story. I may even go back and watch the trilogy from the start.
RECOMMENDATION – As one who has been converted, if you are unsure, or not convinced why a film about apes would appeal to you, let me assure you that there is something for everyone here.