As far as I know, no one has ever scored an Oscar nomination for playing an animal. Yes, John Hurt scored a nod in 1981 for his performance as John Merrick in The Elephant Man, but as we all remember, Merrick was not an animal! He was a human being! He was a man!
Not only should Andy Serkis get heaps of praise lavished upon him for his motion-capture portrayal in War for the Planet of the Apes, he should be given strong consideration as one of the five men to be up for gold next March. As Caesar, the walking-and-talking chimp at the center of the film, Serkis does more than any actor has to this point this year, all while hidden behind a CGI facade.
As for the film itself, coming off the disaster that was 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (apparently I was in the minority there), War is more than a breath of fresh air. It restores my faith in director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In, 10 Cloverfield Lane) and immediately puts him near the top of my list of must-watch directors.
In a lot of other directors’ hands, War could have easily lapsed into staleness, following-up its predecessor as just another throw-away exercise in non-sensical big action punctuated by explosions and gunfights. But Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback (The Wolverine) say they drew inspiration from epics like Bridge on the River Kwai and The Outlaw Josey Wales when putting War together.
Boy, did they ever.
Imagine my surprise when, after a pretty standard opening salvo of battlefield brutality between the apes and the humans trying to kill them, War settles into a deliberate and thoughtful groove, allowing the characters to actually develop personalities and backstories and (gasp!) feelings.
And the fact that Serkis can make all of that come through as a computer-created chimp is even more astounding.
As War gets underway, we’re reminded of the spread of the Simian Flu fifteen years earlier (along with the events of the first two installments). The ever-evolving apes are trying to live peacefully in the woods outside San Francisco, while a ruthless special ops team led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is hell-bent on ridding the planet of them, whether the apes are living peacefully by themselves or not.
After The Colonel kills Caesar’s wife and eldest son in a raid, Caesar heads out on his Josey Wales-esque revenge mission with a small posse, tracking the Colonel to an appropriated stronghold at California’s northern border. Along the way Caesar hears that an even larger army is coming to meet The Colonel’s to organize a massive operation to wipe out the apes for good.
The story is nothing groundbreaking at a base level, certainly, but what elevatesWar is the smaller moments throughout the film that give it ample depth. During his trek, Caesar stumbles upon young Nova (Amiah Miller), a human girl with whom he deeply bonds almost instantly. And instead of just making The Colonel a rote, one-dimensional villain, Reeves and Bomback give him an intriguing backstory. Further credit to Harrelson, of course, for bringing him to life so exquisitely.
The star of the show, though, is Serkis and, almost more importantly, the visual effects team that brought Caesar to life. Reeves never hesitates to linger on a close-up of Caesar, giving us plenty of time to examine every CGI pore and follicle, and I’ll be damned it if doesn’t look more real that an actual ape.
Even though the calendar says it’s summer, make no mistake. War is not mindless popcorn fare to fit in at some point during the next few weekends; it’s a surprisingly moving, honestly engaging film, rich with complex characters, true emotions, and also stunning effects. And, sure, it’s a helluva action flick to boot.
Worth the 3D glasses?
Honestly I think the movie works better without them. Aside from some shots of tracer bullets, explosions, and the like, there’s not a whole lot here to justify the extra cash. Skip the glasses, and instead just enjoy the movie for what it is–gimmick-free.