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War for the Planet of the Apes – Where Technology Finally Captures the Human Heart

Every so often a film comes along that rewrites the rules of what cinema can be, what it should be, and what it is. Matt Reeves’ War of the Planet of the Apes far surpasses expectations of what it should be, and as a result the future of movies – real in-the-theater movies – has never seemed brighter. Though the tension between actors and effects-driven performance capture hasn’t gone away – which in turn means that a movie like this one will always have a hard time crashing the Best Picture party – from an audience’s point of view, this film has successfully erased the line between the real and the imaginary, and the result is breathtaking.

Jim Cameron’s Avatar was the closest any kind of performance capture has come to penetrating the barrier between digital effects and human emotions. But that was before Andy Serkis brought us his brilliant motion capture performance of Caesar in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Serkis’ work continued to shine even after Matt Reeves took the reins for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. But despite his genius performances in the first two films, Serkis reaches new heights in the latest of the trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes. At no time does watching Serkis feel manufactured. That barrier of animation has evaporated – Caesar IS real.

Such is the magic and magnificence of the artists bringing Caesar and the other apes to vivid life in this post-apocalyptic, deadly serious take on the future of mankind. This series is not so much one of fear as it is one of melancholy – a lament for how we’ve squandered the gifts nature has bestowed upon us with our big brains and our advanced toolmaking. Look at how we’ve decided to use it: to create weapons that kill, to enslave people and animals, to mercilessly wipe out most life forms we share the planet with. There is no mistaking the moral outrage in this film – Matt Reeves holds nothing back in his indictment of who we are and how we failed our planet. It’s a jeremiad that acts as a necessary bridge to handing it over to the apes who will and should now go on to rule.

I don’t know if the creators behind the Planet of the Apes update know just what they’ve stumbled onto here, the idea that we Homo sapiens really have ruined nearly everything good, even if we created so much in the bargain. Nature doesn’t have a morality either, but it finds balance. An aggressively invasive species like Homo sapiens tilted the natural world off-balance. We’re in the midst of destroying it and in no film does that message resonate more powerfully than in this one.

War for the Planet of the Apes is not an easy sit. It’s not a happy sit, nor a particularly fun one. It is as sad as movies can get. The end of an old world and the dawn of a new one is never a pretty picture, but this movie’s message takes us where we need to go both in terms of holding up a mirror to our monster selves, nodding to the original Planet of the Apes series, and displaying jaw-dropping advancements in digital effects by WETA.

We’re pulled into a holocaust of sorts, even if all of the while we’re dazzled by the remarkable visuals. The film opens with Caesar leading his family of apes to find some sort of promised land. Of course they’re being hunted by a species that will be selected out by its own violent hand. The leader of the mob is Woody Harrelson, who is trying to fight the submission of humans, ultimately, to apes, which is where the two primates find themselves in the beginning of the first Planet of the Apes.

Harrelson is one of the best things about the movie (crazy Woody is always the best Woody) and here he’s a standout — a hard thing to achieve up against the scene-stealing Serkis. And a new ape played by Steve Zahn is introduced for comic relief. And Nova, the silent beauty from the first movie, is re-introduced here, as a wide-eyed child being cared for and bonding with the apes.

The actors are all brilliant, and the Michael Giacchino score is Oscar-worthy, but this film belongs to the effects wizards, the animators who created this imaginary world and brought it to vibrant, pulsating life. Every tiny detail is attended to – the performance capture is seamless. They have now set the standard impossibly high. Your move, Jim Cameron.

Walking out of War of the Planet of the Apes, I had the feeling I’d just seen nothing like I’ve ever seen before in a Hollywood film. It felt like a major breakthrough, a shift in the way films are made, a kind of hybrid between animation and live action that embraces the heft of thoughtful storytelling while also operating in the zone of making sure people still go to the movies.

It is a stunning achievement in all respects, and certainly will be considered one of the best films of the year by any standard. I left feeling sorry for Caesar and his family. He deserved better. They deserved better. All animals deserve better than what we’ve done to them in our 200,000 year reign on this planet. One day we humans will outstay our welcome here. This perfect blue planet, so well-suited for us to thrive but exploited so irresponsibly, will shake us off. A new dawn will bring the flourish of new life. I can only hope that in that life there are highly evolved apes who walk on knuckles, swing from trees, and know the capacity of the human heart. As this film makes so remarkably clear – love is the thing that binds us mammals and it is the thing, maybe the only thing in us, that will endure.