You know how seamless the motion capture process has become when you don’t even spend time marvelling at it as people used to and instead focus straight into the film. It’s probable that this story could not have been done till now due to those advances because it is seen almost entirely from the apes point of view while the scattering of human characters enjoy relatively short focus compared to their simian rivals. This can, at times, make the results seem slightly drawn out but this is a tense, slow burning war film that succeeds by trying new twists on a familiar tale.
Caesar is now getting old and showing a tendency towards conciliation and wisdom, aspects conveyed superbly by Andy Serkis. There is no doubt now that this is as much an acting role as it is a technical one and Serkis brings across a deep personality for the apes’ leader as his optimistic idyll is shattered by the slaughter of family members by human intruders in a masterfully shot scene that conveys the panic such an incursion would bring. Throughout director Matt Reeves’ cameras are inventive and interesting finding odd ways to show things we’ve seen many times before.
Caesar’s plan for revenge goes awry and ends up with most of the apes imprisoned in a facility belonging to a rebel human faction. This place’s metal railings and remote wintery location add a level of despondency that evokes various prisoner of war dramas or maybe the mines in Siberia especially when the apes are put to work doing that time honoured cinematic task of moving rocks about.
The narrative does have to contend with the fact that the apes’ language skills are not as nuanced or varied as their human captors hence some of the scenes can seem simplistic, even slow, but the achievement is the expressions in their faces, their body movement and the way they interact with each other and their surroundings. You simply cannot spot the joins. It is surely the best motion capture yet seen on screen and brings the twin disciplines of acting and motion capture to the point where they become one. Will such a performance ever be Oscar nominated in an acting category? I would say that Andy Serkis should be but add the fact that sci-fi is rarely rewarded suggests the chances are slim. Several other apes make an impact especially Bad Ape an elderly looking chimp who’s panicky responses add a little levity to what is otherwise a sombre movie.
In contrast to Caesar and company the unnamed Colonel a self- styled leader played with melodramatic relish by Woody Harrelson is a rather two dimensional antagonist despite the actor’s intense performance. The facility is heavily manned but guards are absent when the narrative needs them to be yet all over the place at other times and are rather cavalier about the opening of the cages. It would probably have evened the balance of the film a little more had the soldier Caesar spares early on been given a more significant arc than simply standing about in the background.
The tinder dry tensions erupt in an excellent climactic battle which is a match for the superb action sequences in the Rise film. It must be tricky to find new ways to shoot these kinds of sequences but Matt Reeves manages it. The film’s greatest achievement though is to present the sort of hardships that if faced by human characters would be powerful and moving and make us feel the same about apes. War for the Planet of the Apes crosses the line from technical attainment to become strong drama notching up a third excellent Apes movie in a row.