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Hail Caesar

The Apes movies have formed the most quietly impressive blockbuster franchise in recent years. Matt Reeves returns with another fantastic entry in Caesar’s tale, cementing Apes as the best big screen trilogy since The Lord of the Rings.

We pick up with Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his ape brethren some time after the events of Dawn, and the fall out from Koba’s betrayal is still keenly felt. Despite dying in the last film, his presence looms large in War. There is no hope for peace after what he did. Conflict rages on, and Caesar’s best hope of providing a life for his followers is to lead them across the desert in the hopes man will not cross it.

The face of the enemy this time out is Woody Harrelson, an unnamed Colonel who leads an army of men and women willing to kill, and die, for him. An early confrontation between Caesar and the Colonel ends in tragedy and pulls Caesar away from his cause and onto a path of revenge.

Despite the title, War is actually smaller in scale than Dawn. It’s a personal quest for Caesar as he and a small group of comrades leave their people (…apes) behind to track down and take out the Colonel. This works in the film’s favour as it sets it apart from the previous entry. Each film has its own flavour. Rise was Caesar’s fight to find his true family and his place within it. Dawn was the true war film, as the chance for peace is torn from Caesar’s hands. War is the fight for Caesar’s soul. Rage consumes him, and despite knowing it is not in the best interest for him or his kind, he cannot let it go. This is what destroyed Koba, and Caesar knows it.

So Caesar, Rocket (Terry Notary), and everybody’s favoruite, Maurice (Karin Konoval), head off to find The Colonel. It isn’t long before they come across a little girl (Amiah Miller) who they soon realise is mute. Her affliction, and the name Maurice eventually gives her, will be instantly familiar to fans of the 1968 original.

War doesn’t quite have the emotional heft of the previous two movies. Caesar realising his place is not with James Franco’s character in Rise is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. Koba’s betrayal eroding Caesar’s hopes for peace in Dawn is just as affecting. But in War Caesar is all but broken and so the film has a melancholy tone throughout. It doesn’t go for big emotional crescendos, but instead pulls out the smallest moments of hope and empathy from desperation. It is a tone that isn’t as immediately satisfying, but shows the maturation of this series as it has gone along.

The performances reflect this growth, as everyone inhabits their role perfectly. Technology and actor have meshed seamlessly. At no point in the film will you be aware you are looking at a 53 year old man in motion capture suit. And speaking of mo-cap, when is Serkis going to be recognised as the pioneer that he is. The man has been doing phenomenal work for years, and Caesar is his most impressive. He will always be remembered for Gollum, but the layers he brings to Caesar are staggering. He conveys so much with so little, an expression or body movement speaking volumes. This is a film where over 50% of the dialogue is subtitled sign language and yet we are never in the dark as to what these characters are thinking. Their faces tell us everything. And that is not down to computer generated effects, that is actors acting their asses off.  Unlike many modern blockbusters, the effects are working for the story, not instead of it.

Despite not being in a motion capture suit, Amiah Miller also has to convey a great deal without saying anything. Thankfully she proves herself more than up to the task, her large empathetic eyes doing all the talking for her.

Steve Zahn may prove a point of contention for some fans, as his Bad Ape (literally what he calls himself) is the most broadly comedic the series has ever gone. But in a film this dark, the occasional laugh is most welcome. Thankfully the levity he brings is tempered by a tragic backstory, fleshing him out beyond the one note joke he could have otherwise been.

Harrelson is clearly relishing his part as the Colonel. He’s borderline maniacal, indifferent to the apes suffering, and unrelenting. But in the back half of the film Harrelson gets the opportunity to open him up ever so slightly, and we see the broken man he is. We learn what drives him, and as with the best villains, realise he is not entirely wrong.

Harrelson’s Kurtz-esque turn is not director Matt Reeves only nod to Apocalypse Now. This is a film that broadly flaunts its influences. From the aforementioned Vietnam masterpiece, to Escape from Alcatraz, to The Ten Commandments. This is not a subtle film. When Reeves wants you to make a Moses comparison, he makes damn sure you see it. But that is not a slight, it works, and it works well. These are big movies with big, surprisingly complicated themes. The cost of hate on both a personal and societal level. The fear of being replaced. Tribalism. All wrapped up in a religious allegory. The Apes movies have always been about so much and War proudly carries on that tradition. These are adult films, well made and fantastically performed.

Hopefully The Batman, the director’s next film, doesn’t take Reeves away from this franchise for too long, as he has a handle on what this story is and should be. I’m excited about the possibility of an apes only entry, where human presence is minimal if any. We are at the point of understanding with these characters where we don’t need a human view point character. We know these apes, their wants and desires, because they are our own. Such is the power of this series. That we can take what is on the surface a silly premise, and through the wonder of cinema, the world’s greatest empathy machine, relate to it.

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