Critics are hailing Andy Serkis' Caesar and director Matt Reeves' War for the Planet of the Apes. The Apes saga began, of course, in 1968 with Planet of the Apes, which starred Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter. Heston played American astronaut George Taylor, whose Icarus spacecraft returns to Earth, only to find it ruled by an advanced primate species. McDowall and Hunter played chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira, and the success of the film resulted in four sequels — Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes — which concluded the film series in 1973.
While Planet of the Apes resurfaced on TV in the interim, the series tried making a comeback in 2001 with Tim Burton's reboot, which starred Mark Wahlberg as the film’s lost astronaut, as well as Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter as evolved chimpanzees. The film was both a critical and box office disappointment, and the Apes series once again went dormant until director Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011.
Taking a prequel approach to the Apes saga, Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes examined the origins of Caesar (Serkis in a groundbreaking motion-capture performance) and how he developed his superior intelligence. Reeves took over the helm from Wyatt for the superior sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, where Caesar led a rapidly evolving community of apes after a virus eliminated much of the world's human population; and War for the Planet of the Apes finds Caesar and his fellow apes at war with humans following the third act of Dawn — where a rogue chimpanzee, Koba (Toby Kebbell) started the war between the species.
In early reviews posted by various outlets Monday, critics almost but not completely unanimous in their praise of War for the Planet of the Apes, which in this round adds Woody Harrelson to the mix as a cut-throat military colonel intent on eradicating the simians once and for all. Here are some SPOILER-FREE excerpts from the reviews:
Almost as rare as winning the Triple Crown in horse racing is to make a film trilogy that clicks from beginning to end, but Fox has pretty much pulled it off with its refurbished Planet of the Apes trio ... As before, the drama is graced with "human" moments that deepen the emotions and sweep the audience up in the action. Given that Caesar, the first "humanized" ape, is among the precious few who can speak (with Serkis lending him deep vocal tones and fine articulation), the film is heavily subtitled to convey the meaning of the grunting and sign language used by most of the animals to communicate; as in the previous films, the effect is beguiling.
THR — Todd McCarthy
Someone give Andy Serkis an Oscar. Please. It really is that simple. His Caesar is an all-timer. I don’t care how much effects work went into animating his face, because you cannot fake that kind of performance. Serkis has carried these films and brought true emotion and power to pixels and motion capture. All of these actors deserve some kind of award for their work here. When Caesar’s heart breaks, so does ours. Caesar is one of the best cinematic heroes of the 21st century, and that is no disparagement against the teams of visual effects artists that help bring him and the other apes to life.
Coming Soon — Alan Cerny
I admire Reeves’ ambition. Everything from the sprawling action sequences, to the resounding orchestral score, and even the straight-faced seriousness of his apes speaks to his respect for this property. He clearly set out to make not just a summer blockbuster that’d thrills audiences, but also one that the Academy Awards might see as a grand drama on the same level of the films it earnestly references, like Apocalypse Now and The Ten Commandments. But amid all his big ideas, Reeves lost touch with the property’s humanity, creating an impressive but cold epic.
CBR — Kristy Puchko
There’s a lot that “War” has going for it, including some of the richest characterizations of all three “Apes” reboots, along with the next-level CG work of bringing an ape army to life with expressive, emotional faces. Like its two predecessors, it has its flaws — and each entry has had unique ones — but overall, this is a trilogy that will stand as an example of how to remake and reimagine familiar material in a way that respects the original while also enhancing it.
The Wrap — Alfonso Duralde
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is perhaps the most audience friendly of the saga, but even that has given way to the bleak Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Matt Reeves’ concluding and even bleaker chapter War for the Planet of the Apes. While other franchises have to make concessions “for the fans” (i.e. people who demands nostalgic reverence and reaffirming nods rather than challenging movies) or try to chase trends, the Apes movies have surprisingly been left alone, allowed to flourish, thrive, and become one of the best sci-fi series ever made.
Collider — Matt Goldberg
Reeves asks us to empathize with Caesar on a quest that defies everything the character has previously stood for, then gives him an easy way out when it finally comes time to exact his revenge. Likewise, he promises a war movie, then delivers a show-stopping avalanche at precisely the moment both sides are expected to do battle. By quoting from some of cinema’s best adventure movies, Reeves has safely satisfied the fanboy contingent, and yet the ease with which he eradicates the human race betrays an alarming soullessness that even the most pixel-perfect performance-capture can’t excuse.
Variety — Peter Debruge
If War occasionally lapses into mawkish, melodramatic moments it doesn’t need (or that Reeves’ and Mark Bomback’s script can’t fully support—apparently apes can be as corny as humans), War more than makes up for it with sequences of such eye-candy spectacle you won’t cry foul. I’m not sure where the Apes franchise goes from here exactly. Or if it even goes anywhere. But if this is the series’ swan song, it’s going out on top.
EW -- Chris Nashawaty
Clearly there was a reason 20th Century Fox screened the film so early for critics and lifted its review embargo nearly three weeks before its July 14 opening. It's a big show of confidence in not only huge box office prospects for War for the Planet of the Apes (Rise grossed $482 globally, while Dawn took in $710 million worldwide), but the film's long-term awards prospects. Sure, the film will likely be a huge contender for its technical achievements, but it will be interesting to see if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally embraces motion capture (particularly Serkis) as a legitimate means of acting.
What remains to be seen is, if the film pans out both financially and in terms of awards prospects, how the series as a whole proceeds. War certainly leaves the door open for the Planet of the Apes saga to evolve even further, and Reeves says he has ideas for more Apes films. Whether it can achieve the greatness of Wyatt's and Reeves' Apes trilogy is yet to be seen, since producer Peter Chernin says War ends Caesar's story.
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