I’ve responded well to this decade’s Planet of the Apes films, and this year’s War for the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matt Reeves, is no exception. I can’t really say the same for the Apes films of the 1960s and ‘70s, not so much because they didn’t provide some moments of entertainment, but because, in spite of the social and political messages they intended to convey, they weren’t especially compelling. If anything, they came off as toyetic, a way to mass produce a line of children’s toys. It didn’t help that, even by the standards of the time, the makeup effects were hilariously unconvincing; Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter looked about as much like chimpanzees as Paul Muni and Luise Rainer looked like Asians in The Good Earth.
But these new Apes films are different. Yes, it’s in part because of advancements in technology, the title characters now brought to life with state-of-the-art motion capture animation rather than makeup and costumes. Even in dim 3D, it really comes alive. But it’s also because the filmmakers don’t treat the characters as merchandising opportunities, or the stories as clotheslines to hang them on; the material is taken seriously. It’s just as much about delving into narrative and theme as it is about entertainment. Most of the apes you see in these new movies aren’t cinematic oddities, as they seemed in the old days, but rather fleshed-out characters that elicit genuine emotional reactions from the audience.
This was in 2011 and remains now true of the character central to these films, Caesar, played once again by Andy Serkis, the current undisputed king of motion capture performances. This film shows that Caesar has only kept evolving, his previous ability to communicate with only sign language and pidgin English replaced with the near-perfect ability to speak. His fellow apes still rely greatly on signing, but they seem to understand everything Caesar says. That might seem like a narrative flaw, but keep in mind that, even in real life, it’s possible to grasp meaning even when methods of communication are different. Our pets can’t actually tell us when they’re hungry, for example, and yet we know when they want to eat.
The plot involves Caesar going on a revenge mission, specifically against a colonel (Woody Harrelson) who, in a desperate and paranoid effort to preserve humans as Earth’s dominant species, has not only masterminded attacked and decimated Caesar’s clan but also hurt Caesar in the most personal of ways. This comes at a time when humans and apes are at war, which was kickstarted by the events of the previous film, themselves exacerbated by a treacherous ape named Koba. Though Caesar never wanted war, he has learned to protect himself and his kind if attacked. Even in his need for vengeance, it’s not all of humanity he’s after. It’s just the colonel. He has gone one step too far.
Intertwined is a subplot about humans mysteriously losing the ability to speak. Caesar and a handful of his followers unwittingly discover this when they come across an orphaned and mute girl around eleven or twelve years old (Amiah Miller). Upon rescuing her, she will quickly be accepted by the apes and even prove helpful in working through the scrapes they find themselves in. This is especially true during the final act, in which Caesar and his entire clan of apes have to mastermind an escape from the colonel’s maximum security labor camp, located deep within an alpine mountain range covered in snow.
I think it’s easy to tell that I greatly enjoyed War for the Planet of the Apes. That doesn’t mean I think it’s as good as the two films that preceded it. For one thing, while all chapters of this new trilogy include references to the ‘60s and ‘70s Apes films, this chapter is particularly shameless about making them; when you see the present the mute girl is given about midway through, you’ll know exactly what I mean. There’s also an unneeded and inappropriate sense of humor worked in, with most of the comedy relief reserved for a new ape character known only as Bad Ape (voiced and performed by Steve Zahn). But even with these questionable touches, the film is still a superior entertainment – technologically masterful and made with the mature sensibilities I wanted but rarely got from the original series.