I really enjoyed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It took the first film as a starting point and focused on the apes actually creating a society from scratch. It wasn’t another mindless action film, but a film about “people” trying to figure out how they belong in a rapidly changing world.
Dawn worked because it wasn’t reliant on the first film. War leaves me conflicted. I still like it a lot. But should I praise it for giving me more of something I like or condemn it for not taking as many risks as its predecessor?
I’ll go with the former option. War does everything Dawn did correctly. There are also many nods to the original series. This new Apes has ended one of the best modern blockbuster trilogies.
In the years since Dawn, Caesar and the apes have been at war with a group of humans. One, known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is becoming particularly vicious in his attacks. One of them kills Caesar’s wife and son. He sends his tribe to find a new home while he and a small group go to the Colonel’s compound. There they find the Colonel has captured his tribe and is using them to build a wall so he can continue fighting a civil war with what remains of the U.S. army.
Let’s start with Andy Serkis’ Caesar. Serkis has officially replaced Lon Chaney as the Man of 1000 Faces. He puts just as much effort into his mo-cap roles as Daniel Day Lewis does in his dramas. Caesar was bound to be impossible to play across an entire trilogy, going from a convincing ape to a convincing man.
Serkis in War plays Caesar as an ape doing his best to convince himself he’s something more. The film plants seeds of an epic myth that will be told by the ape society for centuries. Caesar seems keenly aware of this and wants to live up to that expectation. It would be challenging for an actor to play a character, much less one who has to do it as an animal.
Besides Caesar, most of the apes still communicate in sign language. Think about the challenge. These actors have to convey complex emotions as creatures that can’t talk and that lives part of their lives unable to feel what they currently feel.
I mention all of this because I don’t believe the acting in the Apes trilogy has been recognized enough. It’s a challenge to make these characters relatable and empathetic and to make poo tossing the ultimate symbol of rebellion. Yet the actors in War do it perfectly.
What’s especially fascinating is how none of the films explain what’s happening to human civilization. I have no idea what really remains of society. There’s still an army, but no one seems to know who they’re serving. It makes the people left scared not just for their lives, but for their futures. Remember the first Apes film, when people couldn’t talk and functioned like wild animals? This film shows they may be well on their way to that fate. (One young girl even picks up a vanity key chain that reads “Nova.”) It makes for a complex villain in the Colonel. He’s not sadistic, but responding and imprisoning apes becauses he’s scared.
Finally, the actual war scene is engaging. It’s not a battle between the apes and the humans. The apes are only caught in the middle as the humans fight. It’s in sync with the other films in the franchise. Apes were never meant to be man’s enemy. We were our own enemy who “blew it up.” And it’s exciting to watch Caesar dodge missiles as he tries to ensure his tribe’s survival. I was emotionally invested in Caesar and wanted him to prevail.
Yes, I liked War. It’s perfect from a technical standpoint and kept me engaged the entire time. But I felt the film was reusing a lot of elements from Dawn. Caesar’s character arc is the same. He has to choose between his tribe and his own desires, often at times when he can’t see the consequences his decisions are having. It worked in Dawn because the villainous Koba was there as a foil to Caesar, but there’s no foil here. It was also odd seeing the apes back as the oppressed class. That had already been done in Rise. Using the apes as slave labor to build a wall sure does resonate in today’s climate and I was emotionally invested in their plight. But it also was something I’d seen before.
So I’m not as enthusiastic about War as I was for Dawn. This approach was the safest the film could take. It’s the equivalent of going to a restaurant and re-ordering your favorite dish. It’s still enjoyable but the only reason that it became your favorite was because it surprised you when you first tried it. That surprise is gone. It’s not really anyone’s fault and I’m glad that I still enjoyed the experience. But can you imagine if War took a few more chances?