When the franchise first tried a reboot in 2001, it was in the hands of director Tim Burton.The result, while pretty faithful to the look of the original series, was....not good. So when 20th Century Fox decided to try it again in 2011, I was skeptical. But the resulting Rise of the Planet of the Apes was vastly superior to Burton's film, and while it turned out to be the weakest of the trilogy, it did leave me eager to see where it would go, and the next film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a rare sequel that improved upon its predecessor.
War of the Planet of the Apes, the third film in the series, is set about two years after the events of Dawn, which saw the apes go to battle with humans at the foot of San Francisco's Market Street. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his growing tribe are living deeper in the California woods, trying to stay hidden from the man. But the man isn't having it, and as the film opens, soldiers crawl through the mist looking for the apes in a scene that brings to mind numerous Vietnam war films. ("Bedtime for Bonzo" and "Kill Monkeys" scrawled on the soldiers' helmets hammers that point home.)
Apparently, humans are no match for intelligent apes with spears, and the apes fight off the attack while sparing many of the men, sending them back to their leader as a sign of peace. But knowing their fortress is no longer a secret, the apes plan to make a pilgrimage to a new home.
Proving that humans are, indeed, the worst, the apes' peaceful gesture means nothing, and after another attack ends in death for some of Caesar's family, he vows revenge on the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), the leader of this army of men.
As in the previous film, the apes this time around are primarily CGI creations, headed by Serkis's Caesar. Which isn't to say Serkis is only providing a voice to an animated creation; as in the previous films, it's all him up there, a remarkable performance through motion capture technology. For the most part, the effects are pretty seamless, although far too often the ape dialog is obvious ADR; it's a good thing the majority of apes use sign language to talk.
One new addition who does speak is an aging chimp Caesar and his crew find hiding out in an old ski lodge in the Sierras. He tells them about his years in captivity, where humans only referred to him as "Bad Ape," a name he has adopted since it's the only one he's ever had. Bad Ape is played by Steve Zahn, and he is a delightful addition to the film, equal parts dotty old man and eager schoolboy. (I didn't know it was Zahn before I saw the film, but after about 10 minutes of his screen time, it was quite obviously him — another testament to the wonder of the technology and the animators' ability to transfer the minutia of a performance onto the screen.)
Another recruit to Caesar's revenge crew is a young non-speaking girl (Amiah Miller) the apes adopt after her father is killed. In a weird marketing move, several TV spots for the film make it seem like the story is centered around her, but in reality, she's more like a stray dog they just pick up on the way. They show her kindness (illustrating, once again, that these apes are more evolved than the majority of the humans left in the word) but she is never the center of their story, although her name and how she gets it is one the film's best nods to the original franchise.
Woody Harrelson's role as the Colonel is clearly modeled after Brando's Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, further driving home the Vietnam war analogy. He has one good scene with Sirkis's Caesar, but aside from that, he veers a little too far into cartoon villainy, especially when the extent of his plans are revealed. (Let's just say they involve erecting a wall, and making the apes
pay for it build it. Join the Ape Resistance!)
Up to that point, the film feels like a simian western, with the ape clan venturing across the landscape on horseback, encountering enemies and allies along the way. I'll admit I preferred that to the latter half, which turns the story over to the War of its title, and the requisite gun fights and explosions that requires. But then again I've always preferred a good Western over a war movie.
It's a rare thing these days for a franchise to only get better as the series progresses. The first film suffered a bit from the silliness factor, headed up by the casting of James Franco as a scientist and the idea that somehow there are enough simians in the Bay Area that, were they all to break lose, they could easily number in the hundreds and take over the Golden Gate Bridge. But once the series got past just how the apes were able to gain enough intelligence to actually threaten humanity, the series settled into a good groove, resulting in what is easily the best film yet.
I'm not sure where the series might take us next (will it involve an astronaut?) and the success of this one will surely be the deciding factor if another happens at all, but I'm looking forward to seeing just where those damn dirty apes might end up.Planet of the Apes