How privileged we are to exist in the world at the same time as Andy Serkis.
The above is what I thought to myself more than once as I sat in a darkened theater and watched #MattReeves' War for the Planet of the Apes unfold on the screen. Reeves deserves credit here; he's piloted home the third and final movie of a threequel, traditionally the toughest to navigate, with skill and grace. But make no mistake—this is #AndySerkis' movie through and through. The movie rests entirely on his shoulders—or, more accurately, on Caesar's mesmerizing, expressive face, a face that gradually becomes more bloody and battered over the course of the film, a physical representation of the breakdown of his soul.
Breakdown of his soul? Yeah. You read that right. Reeves makes the interesting choice to eschew the usual hero narrative and the trajectory upon which Ceasar had been set through the first two films, and have him dabble in the dark side in the third installment. The noble core is still there, but this is a story of vengeance wrapped up in the trappings of a war film.
The Caesar we meet in the movie is a tired leader, both physically and spiritually. But there is a light to which he clings: There is an untouched area of wilderness where the apes will finally find peace—if only they can get to it. All Caesar wants to do is move his people out of the danger of the woods and find them safe passage to their new home. But that hope is upended when their position is betrayed; Caesar suffers a brutal loss that profoundly and understandably changes him in his grief.
What happens when the best of apes in Caesar encounters the worst of humans in Woody Harrelson's Colonel, a crazed fanatic hellbent on eradicating all of Caesar's kind? What happens to a man—or an ape—when each has something precious ripped away from them? Do they rise up? Do they fall low? Will they ever stop killing each other or are they simply doomed to repeat an endless cycle of war and death? It's to Reeves' credit that there are no real answers in this third and final #PlanetoftheApes film.
There are a lot of elements at work here; bits and pieces of other movies influence and color Reeves' work without overshadowing it. There are more than a few overt references to Apocalypse Now, definite and welcome shades of Spartacus, even moments that remind one of the bleakness of the first Hunger Games movie.
But Serkis' Caesar is the linchpin that holds it all together. For the entire first act he is the only ape that speaks; the rest do it with sign language. The camera is often up close and personal on him, catching every nervous tic of his eye, every brow furrow, every twitch of his lips as the weight of leading his people is conveyed in minute expressions across his mobile, fascinating face. He is weary, so very weary; the camera frames him in such a way so that even when he is in a sea of his people, you can sense the weight on his mind, his isolation from the rest.
The mental and emotional battle raging in Caesar is one that he tries his best to keep from even his closet allies, particularly gentle orangutan Maurice (played by the phenomenal Karin Konoval, who deserves her own accolades for the emotion she brings to the table). His saving grace—quite literally at one point—comes in the form of Nova (Amiah Miller), a human girl who has been stricken mute by the Simian Flu, but whose pure and unfiltered goodness is a light for Caesar, reminding him that not all humans are the enemy.
If there is one new addition that feels somewhat out of place, it is Steve Zahn's Bad Ape, the only other simian in the film who can verbalize speech, though not with the eloquence of Caesar. As the comic relief, Bad Ape elicits some true belly laughs, but every so often that laughter is jarring, in direct opposition to the seriousness of the moment. Zahn plays the chimp with such sweet and endearing vulnerability, however, that it enables you to look past those incongruous moments.
In fact, the only character to speak more than Ceasar in the film is Harrelson's Colonel; one particular lengthy monologue sets the stark contrast between the two. The Colonel's explosive anger and melodramatic gestures only serve to highlight the nuance of Serkis' performance, Caesar's rage suppressed and simmering just beneath the surface. His grief and fury only expressed in the twitch of his eye, the tightening of his jaw, moments enhanced by Michael Giacchino's understated score.
It's a shame the denouement is, for me, the weakest part of the film. After an entire movie in which the apes survive through courage and skill and, frankly, wiping the floor with the humans in the ingenuity department, the deus ex machina nature of the resolution falls flat. As an act of symbolism, it works. As an act of narrative, it is too easy. Then again, considering the fact we watch Caesar and his beloved clan go through hell and back for two hours, maybe they deserve easy.
As for what Serkis deserves? He deserves that long-withheld acting Oscar nomination. #WarforthePlanetoftheApes is already one of the summer's best and I truly believe that over time, the trio of movies will continue to hold up as one of the most solid trilogies of all time. That is entirely because of what Serkis has brought to the table, and it's well past time he's recognized for it.
War for the Planet of the Apes stars Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Amiah Miller, Judy Greer, Max Lloyd-Jones, and Devyn Dalton. It is in theaters on Friday, July 14.