Silent film is a mostly forgotten art form but its influence lingers over some of the best media in recent memory. The likes of No Country for Old Men and Breaking Bad are at their best when no one says anything at all. The same can be said of War for the Planet of the Apes. The actions of the characters speak far louder than any of the often cliché dialogue does and the film is all the better for it.
Fifteen years after the Simian Flu annihilated most of humanity the intelligent ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) continues leading a micro-nation of apes in the Redwood forests north of San Francisco. After the surviving humans, led by a psychotic Colonel (Woody Harrelson), become increasingly aggressive Caesar decides to move the apes to the desert to avoid further conflict. However, after the Colonel kills Caesar’s wife and elder son Caesar embarks on a quest for revenge leading to all-out war.
The war in question is a violent, explosive affair. The battles that bookend the film are masterclasses in action directing. Bullets whizz and artillery shells drop like hammers. The screaming and roaring of the apes opposite the more calculated humans goes a long way in making audiences root for our simian cousins rather than the genocidal fascists humans have become in this hellish vision of the future. Matt Reeves, director of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Cloverfield, remains one of Hollywood’s more underappreciated talents of the current directing crop. But as it should be it’s the apes that are the stars of War for the Planet of the Apes.
This film could well secure Andy Serkis his first Oscar nomination for acting. Robbed of a nomination for all three Lord of the Rings films because of snobbish attitudes to motion capture the Planet of the Apes series has shone a new light on what can be done with the technology. Serkis’ powerful performance as Caesar is filled with equal parts ferocity, hope and dignity. It’s rare that naked CG apes can instil a great sense of both empathy and sympathy in audiences. Karin Konoval as the wise orangutan Maurice is particularly impressive although Steve Zahn as chimpanzee Bad Ape, the ‘cheeky monkey’ of the film, provides some much-needed comic relief.
War for the Planet of the Apes wears its influences on its sleeve and that’s no bad thing. Moments cribbed from The Great Escape, Apocalypse Now and The Ten Commandments all add to the film without taking away from its core originality. Woody Harrelson’s role is particularly reminiscent of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now given the way he is shot and lit as well as his meandering speeches. With all that said War for the Planet of the Apes is a film that can easily ride on its own merits but these little touches add to its overall character.
War for the Planet of the Apes is, despite its ludicrously long title and occasional lapses into cliché, perhaps one of the greatest science-fiction films of the last decade. Riveting near-silent performances and incredible special effects will make it a benchmark for a great deal of films to come. It is a dark look at humanity but it holds great hope for what we can be. As Caesar, himself says: “Apes together strong!” If only we can be the same. Andrew Carroll