A superb motion capture performance from Andy Serkis dominates War for the Planet of the Apes, the final segment of the recent “Caesar” prequel/reboot Apes trilogy. Serkis is master of the motion capture discipline, bringing to life characters as diverse as King Kong, Captain Haddock, Baloo and Supreme Leader Snoke, but his turn as Ape leader Caesar in this film could quite easily be his best performance yet (with the possible exception of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings).
Borrowing elements from two 1970s Apes movies, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the plot concerns ongoing hostilities between Apes and mankind. When Caesar (Serkis) suffers a horrific personal tragedy, he undertakes a quest for revenge against “The Colonel” (Woody Harrelson). Caesar is joined by old friends Rocket (Terry Notary), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and Maurice (Karin Konoval), who like before acts as his conscience. New characters include mysteriously mute human girl Nova (Amiah Miller), who Maurice takes under his wing, and “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), who provides a spot of comic relief in an otherwise largely grim and dark tale.
The bleak tone may come as a surprise to some viewers, but the Planet of the Apes movies have always contained challenging, sometimes controversial subject matter. Although the War title suggests loads of action, the bulk of the film feels more sombre and meditative. Throughout the story, Caesar is tormented by hallucinations of Koba (Toby Kebbell), the Ape villain of the previous movie, who points out his hypocrisy in now turning to the path of vengeance. In addition, the Colonel is a well-rounded, fully realised villain whose motivations are well thought through. There are shades of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Harrelson’s performance, underlined by one piece of human graffiti which reads “Ape-ocalpyse Now”.
It seems redundant to talk about special effects, but the motion capture work here is quite remarkable; both the intimate (the afore-mentioned Serkis) and the large scale battle sequences that bookend the film. Director Matt Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin conjure grey, wintery landscapes that feel tremendously immersive and cinematic, and composer Michael Giacchino builds on his terrific score from the previous film with some fine new themes.
Ultimately, War for the Planet of the Apes is a very solid and satisfying piece of work; definitely on a par with the previous two entries in the series.