There can’t be a human being alive who isn’t familiar with Planet of the Apes, whether it’s the classic 1968 original starring the late Charlton Heston and the late Roddy McDowall, along with its four sequels and 70’s TV spin-off, or Tim Burton’s hugely-panned 2001 remake starring Mark Wahlberg and Helena Bonham Carter, or now Rupert Wyatt/ Matt Reeves’ groundbreaking trilogy. Add to all of that the animated series, the video games, the graphic novels and all the old-school cosplay that has populated comic conventions the world over since the dawn of ape, and you have a franchise that rivals the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek, but one which speaks to the audience on a deeper level with its commentary on our society as well as our treatment of primates not so deep within its subtext.
The original film was based loosely on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 French novel La Planete des Singes, a sci-fi fantasy in which a journalist joins a voyage to a distant planet where speechless, animal-like humans are hunted and enslaved by a civilised society of apes. The book was originally designed as nothing more than a commentary on man’s relationship with ape as well as our own shortcomings and overreliance on technology, but quickly became a sci-fi hit. And this satire is beautifully captured in the film and, along with the groundbreaking use in prosthetic make-up, it became a juggernaut in the sci-fi genre and an instant classic.
Many decades later, in 2001, Tim Burton’s remake was released and while it was a box office hit, it was met with much negative criticism. The film failed to wow audiences like the original did, but for the most part it’s still a semi-fun sci-fi flick and at least honours the original in more ways than some care to notice. Its prosthetics and set pieces are undeniably awesome and there are even some eerie performances from Tim Roth and the late Michael Clarke Duncan. Ultimately though the film failed to imprint on cinema and became even more irrelevant in 2011 when another reboot landed.
Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a huge financial hit and a success amongst critics, praised not only for its storytelling and jaw-dropping CGI motion-capture performances, but for its refreshing approach to the usually-unimaginative reboot territory, which rightfully earns it the label “reimagining” instead, given it’s set a long time before the idea of a planet of apes. Its 2014 sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes can even be considered superior in many ways, not only for riskily jumping forward ten years, an admirable progression of the narrative, but for delivering the most astounding special effects since the dawn of cinema. But just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, Dawn director Matt Reeves returns for the second time to give us War for the Planet of the Apes, and the results are quite simply breathtaking.
Set five years on from Dawn, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his community are already at war with those damned dirty humans. Woody Harrelson plays the wicked Colonel who runs a military outpost that represents some of the last human survivors, all of whom are desperate to wipe out the simians before Earth becomes a planet of apes. The pressure is on for the ape leader, who decides to take the fight to them along with his loyal companions Maurice, Rocket and Luca, and a young muted human girl. But as Caesar develops a deep hatred towards men, he is haunted by visions of old adversary Koba whom he fears becoming.
Much like Dawn, the apes here are startlingly realistic, and rendered me totally slack-jawed throughout. The technology, courtesy of WETA, is just hard to wrap your head around. In short, these characters do not look computerised. From every single strand of hair that moves in the wind, or tears that run down their wrinkled skin, all of their movements, or their humanity-filled eyes, they are, for all intents and purposes, very real indeed. The flawlessness here cannot be overstated. It’s also fair to say that this film could mark the very pinnacle of CGI technology in cinema. How can it get better than this? Suddenly, all of those jokes about James Cameron’s Avatar looking like a Smurfs movie has some basis in reality. And whether Cameron’s constantly-delayed sequel will pilot some new innovative viewing experience like the now-popular VR or not (much like the original film pioneered 3D), he’s already too late to the party – Wyatt and Reeves’ Apes threequel has beat him to it. This is revolutionary filmmaking, and while Avatar remains visually striking, it still pales by comparison.
War is also much less monotone than its (still brilliant) predecessor, this time wielding more charm, quirkiness, heart, soul, humour and drama, whilst aided by Michael Giacchino’s powerful and touching score. But this is largely due to the fact that the film is told entirely from the point of view of the apes, something the trilogy has been naturally and cleverly building towards. And it’s the apes’ performances that are ultimately the most human of all. Of course they’re played by incredibly talented mo-cap actors, but the characters themselves are perhaps all that is truly left of humanity. And then there’s Caesar himself – arguably the most bad-ass character in cinema – whose screen presence is more powerful than ever, and his growing hatred towards humankind palpable.
The best and most groundbreaking film since my all-time favourite Jurassic Park, War for the Planet of the Apes, with its true sense of timeless storytelling, is a soulful and flawless cinematic sci-fi masterpiece. And like the 1968 original, there’s no doubt that it’s a film for the ages, one that will be talked about and used as a benchmark in filmmaking for decades to come. Along with the Back to the Future and Dark Knight trilogies, the Apes trilogy is suddenly one of the very best of all time. That said, there are rumours of a fourth film in the works. But while War seems like the perfect ending, you can’t help but feel that it’s just the beginning; the dawn of a new era in film, and perhaps one in which human beings are pretty scarce.
You might have noticed that my film reviews have been as scarce as the humans in the War for the Planet of the Apes over the past few months. That’s because I’ve been busy travelling the world. But that doesn’t mean I’ve not visited the cinema in that time. If you’d like to check out some of the film reviews from during my three month trip, or even my travel journal which details my adventures, then please check out my blog Curious Rookie. And if you’d like to follow me for future updates, please click the “Follow” button on the top right of my blog’s homepage, and feel free to comment at the bottom of each post – but don’t forget to do the same here on The Swindonian.