Review

The recently rebooted Apes franchise has amassed more than $1.2 billion in worldwide theatrical receipts over the past seven years. Director Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes took $482 million worldwide in 2011 while enjoying highly positive critical reviews and audience reception. Three years later, with Matt Reeves now in the director’s chair, the sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes received even more critical praise and a 47% increase in global box office receipts to the tune of $710 million.
Both films also combined for more than $150 million in domestic Blu-ray/DVD sales and rentals. So the addition of Digital-HD sales and rentals plus international sales and rentals for Blu-ray/DVD likely pushes total global home entertainment revenue for both films to somewhere in the neighborhood of $250+ million. That’s a total theatrical and home release grand total of nearly/more than $1.5 billion.
War for the Planet of the Apes will push that figure past $2 billion with its box office receipts alone, and combined with the eventual global Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD sales and rentals revenue stream, the reboot of the series should hit somewhere at or beyond $2.5 billion. That’s an impressive feat and makes the entire Planet of the Apes franchise one of the most successful sci-fi franchises in history. Here’s a brief sample of some of the high-profile blockbuster franchise soon to be surpassed by Apes: The Dark Knight Trilogy, Iron Man franchise, Superman franchise, Star Trek franchise, Indiana Jones franchise, Captain America franchise, Toy Story franchise, the Terminator franchise, and the Alien franchise.
Going back to the original 1968 film The Planet of the Apes and including all of the theatrical sequels, as well as the abortive reboot attempt back in 2001 with Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, the series has amassed $1.6 billion in worldwide box office, meaning War for the Planet of the Apes could hypothetically push it toward $2.5 billion with just theatrical receipts alone. When we add in the home entertainment sales and rentals for the entire franchise dating back to the very first film almost 50 years ago, the grand total revenue stream without merchandising will easily exceed $3 billion after War’s financial contributions are added to the mix.
Current estimates peg War for the Planet of the Apes’ North American bow at $50+ million, but I expect War to race past $70-75 million on domestic opening weekend. On the lower end of domestic estimates I wouldn’t expect anything lower than perhaps $65 million, while the higher end could be around $80+ million if word of mouth through the weekend sends larger numbers of people to theaters seeking it out.
There are plenty of reasons to expect a substantial opening weekend. This is a big tentpole sequel in a consistently well-reviewed franchise that’s seen rising box office representing a lot of audience love. The marketing has been top-notch, the trailers have generated huge viewership (higher even than Wonder Woman or Spider-Man: Homecoming, for example, on YouTube) and strong positive reactions, and the series benefits from inspiring interest among older viewers who remember the original films, younger adults who simply love this new series while having revisited the original movies after the fact, and youth audiences who are simply aware of this new version and love its and powerful dramatic storytelling alongside eye-popping visual effects and tremendously entertaining action.
The audience word of mouth is going to be terrific for this one, so it should earn another A-range Cinemascore (the previous two films both received A- grades). The expected great audience reactions plus the overwhelmingly positive reviews — it stands at 93% so far at Rotten Tomatoes — are the magical combo that elevates blockbuster Summer fare to overperforming freshman weekends and huge final cumes.
An opening in the $70+ million range would suggest a final total beyond $200 million in North America, assuming War legs out to around a 2.8x multiplier like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes did. $80 million pushes it past $220+ million in the states and Canada. If it performs roughly on par with those current guesstimates and the domestic/foreign split is comparable to Dawn, then we can expect a final box office tally in the range of $690 million on the lowest end, $790+ million on the high end, and about $740 million as the mid-range moderate estimate.
For now, I think those numbers are probably about right, and I lean toward expecting a performance somewhere in the mid-$700’s million to perhaps $800 million, depending on how big the foreign totals turn out to be. There are actually relatively few major competitors at the box office overall, since many of the bigger films are wrapping up their runs in most markets and others are performing relatively weakly. Spider-Man: Homecoming, Despicable Me 3, and Baby Driver are currently the primary challengers, with Dunkirk and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets waiting in the wings the following weekend.
Last year on the comparable weekend, the top 5 releases (only two of which were new, and only one of those was a major release) took about $175 million in domestic box office, and the top 10 accounted for around $205 million. This year, the films currently in the marketplace likely to be in the top-5 this coming weekend should post a cumulative $85-90 million. With only the low budget horror flick Wish Upon opening (to probably $5-7 million) alongside War for the Planet of the Apes, the question becomes whether War can bring the rest of the necessary numbers to help the weekend avoid a year-to-year dip for the top-5 (I suspect the top-10 will represent a decline of perhaps 10% for the weekend).
If you think there’s too much competition at the box office right now, just consider what Dawn of the Planet of the Apes faced when it opened on the same weekend three years ago. Transformers: Age of Extinction was already in theaters and eating the box office alive, and then each subsequent weekend brought more branded franchise releases trying to steal the target demographics away — Planes: Fire and Rescue, Hercules, Guardians of the Galaxy, Teenagae Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Step Up All In. Yet Dawn went on to top $710 million.
So, with the financial side of the equation out of the way, let’s talk quality. Why do I say War for the Planet of the Apes will enjoy such enthusiastic word of mouth from audiences? Read on and find out…
When I reviewed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes three years ago, I declared it the best film of the Summer and among 2014’s best releases overall. It’s hard to imagine director Matt Reeves could top what he achieved in that remarkable picture, but War for the Planet of the Apes miraculously exceeds it.
This is the first major 2017 contender for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor at the next Academy Awards — not a dark horse candidate, but a straight-up significant contender. It is a testament to how powerful, visionary, and brilliantly realized genre filmmaking can be. With War, the Planet of the Apes series becomes one of the greatest science fiction series in cinema history, and among the finest trilogies of any genre ever put to film.
I don’t wish to give away any of the plotting, because there are many unexpected turns and revelations. But the motivations for the main characters become more complex and harrowing than either of the prior films in the series — particularly for Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis in a genius performance that I simply have to trust will be recognized at the Oscars regardless of any misguided attitudes about performance-capture. We see a nuanced array of viewpoints and reactions to the increasing warfare and dangers posed by hostilities between humans and apes, and even humans against other humans, and nobody is reduced to simplistic perceptions or predictable assertion of intentions.
As we discover underlying new developments in the situation faced by both sides — which surprise each of them, in turn — it becomes harder to prescribe blame and ill cause to any single side or individual. What would you do if you clearly understood that the victory of one group ensured the death of your family and species, not in some abstract or hypothetical manner arising from assumptions about our nature, but rather in very literal terms linking the life of one side to the subjugation and destruction of your own people? How far would you go to stop those who pose such an existential threat to the people you love and everyone in your own society?
These are the sort of themes War for the Planet of the Apes is concerned with, and it speaks to how messy and imperfect are our attempts to identify or claim any absolute truths about war and its justifications or condemnations. I have a much more detailed piece on the film’s themes that I’ll publish after opening weekend, in which I delve into the serious questions and concepts underlying War’s narrative. For now, let me just note the film challenges us with arguments and truths that swing our emotions back and forth, so that we are disappointed or angry at times with the film’s heroes and feel sorrow or pity for the film’s villains. Never so much that we lose sight of who is largely to blame, or fail to relate most of all to the apes’ perspective; but enough that we are aware moral ambiguities exist, and recognize our judgment often depends on lesser degrees of guilt rather than pure innocence.
This series is never satisfied with thinly drawn characters, and instead offers up personalities and lives rich in meaning and detail, driven by compelling emotions and points of view. Andy Serkis continues to render Caesar one of the most fully-formed, believable characters in any modern film series. With so much of the performance relying on nonverbal expression and body language, Serkis takes this character far beyond anything we saw in the previous two films both in terms of his arc and his vivid construction on screen. I’ll talk more about the visual effects later, but for this part of the discussion let me say you must keep firmly in mind the fact this is a motion capture performance in which the awe-inspiring final visual realization of Caesar is a presentation of Serkis’ superb acting.
The entire rest of the cast are wonderful and deserve high praise, but I want to single out a few particular roles that stand out and help truly define this film. Karin Konoval is sublime as Maurice, almost entirely voiceless and instead relying entirely on facial expression and body movement to convey intense emotion, ideas, and humor. Karin is Caesar’s conscience of sorts, and always pushes him to strive toward a better path of understanding and peace. Terry Notary returns as Rocket and delivers a heart-aching and inspirational performance, a character always willing to risk and sacrifice for Caesar and their cause, with a unique understanding of Caesar’s pain and beliefs.
Steve Zahn is a newcomer to the franchise as Bad Ape, who delivers comedic relief without undercutting the power of his scenes and the film’s overall tone. It is a deft performance, having to balance sadness and loneliness with newfound sense of belonging and fear of the implications of his new role alongside warring apes. There is an inherent emotional sensitivity to the role, and Zahn makes even the humorous moments feel mixed with some degree of either bittersweetness or tenderness. He steals most of the scenes his in, and as a longtime fan of Zahn’s work — I love his performances in Happy, Texas and Out of Sight, as well as the oddly underrated Sahara, and he’s amazing in the show Treme — I think this one of the finest performances he’s given, often understated to a beautifully moving degree.
Ty Olsson, another newcomer to the Apes series, stars as the conflicted gorilla Red, who works with the human army and loathes Caesar. His cruelty toward the other apes and particularly Caesar is a manifestation of his resentment over the defeat and death of Koba in the previous film. It’s a performance full of menace and hostility, but also clear and constant inner turmoil and growing self-hatred for his personal betrayal of the ape cause. Olsson has to mix a heavily physical performance with an intensely emotional one, because Red never has a moment or sequence in which he’s resting or calm — he is forever moving, brutalizing, restraining himself or giving in to raw aggression, and he is always consumed by raging feelings that draw him toward strength and what he perceives as “the winning side” while his heart tears itself apart over the loss of pride and loyalty and faith in his fellow apes.
Woody Harrelson meanwhile is splendidly ruthless and unexpectedly relatable as the human military commander known simply as the Colonel. Harrelson always finds a way to bring even his larger-than-life characters down to earth and reveal some spark of humanity and even charm within them. In War, his Colonel is an antagonist convinced of his own righteousness, the hero of his own story, driven by both a very clear sense of the threat posed to humanity and his own personal tragedy. His war goes beyond just the human-ape conflict, and Harrelson lets us into the psyche of a man isolated from his fellow man even as he is convinced he’s saving them.
The role is similar to Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, but far more relatable because he is not buried beneath the weight of his insanity, with a clearer, larger purpose and goals. Harrelson’s performance avoids leaning into the comparison, and instead provides a much more humanized characterization who we cannot deny is correct in some of his logical deductions about the implications of the war and other events. His personal conflict with Caesar speaks to the duality of the characters and their similarities, and of the often ambiguous nature of assigning guilt and innocence among combatants in war.
Amiah Miller plays Nova, a young human whose origins and status are best left unspoiled here. Miller’s is a nonspeaking role, but she still has much to say and do in the film, requiring a strong performance built around nonverbal reactions and slowly-learned sign language. There is much tragedy and pain in her performance, as well as moments of joy and humor, and her status straddling the line between the world of humans and apes provides ample opportunity for Miller to display great talent at the subtle demands of such a performance. In particular, the scenes between Miller and Konoval are touching and allow the larger themes about recognizing inner humanity, and about war and peace, to resonate gently beneath the surface.
The script by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves is interested more in character and relationships than pure action, giving us a great deal of fantastic personal moments delving into emotional conflict about war and revenge, about guilt and innocence and the vast area in between. But it’s also full of some amazing action sequences built around character choices and major reversals of fortune and motivation, while also serving to thrill us and remind us that just as a Summer blockbuster can also be filled with deep dramatic storytelling, so too can a serious dramatic meditation on humanity and war be filled with eye-popping visuals and exciting action. The balance here is even more perfect than in the last movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which is an impressive feat since that film was already near-perfect.
Now, about those visual effects. It’s impossible to overstate how stunning is the realism achieved in War for the Planet of the Apes. This is on par with the hyper-realism achieved in last year’s The Jungle Book, except taking things even further toward a revolutionary moment in incorporating live-action and photo-real CGI. It will take your breath away, with not only the level of authenticity achieved but also how gorgeous and passionate the imagery feel — this being a testament to how well the VFX and the cinematography by Michael Seresin compliment one another, creating a rich and diverse visual palate. As with The Jungle Book from 2016, I cannot imagine any film surpassing what War for the Planet of the Apes achieves with effects that aren’t just jaw-dropping and transcendent, but also so intricately incorporated into the performances and storytelling overall.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a brilliant, beautiful, breathtaking blockbuster filled with grand performances and gripping emotional storytelling. This is why we go to the movies, and this is everything franchise cinema should aspire to be. The best film I’ve seen all year, War is the must-see movie of the Summer and one I’ll return to see again and again.
By the way, if you’re a Batman fan then doubly encourage you to see War for the Planet of the Apes so that you may fully bask in the glory of Matt Reeves’ filmmaking. If you remained on the fence or insisted Reeves didn’t have enough of a proven track record to earn your faith and endorsement in taking over the Batman franchise, War will leave no room for doubt. Go see this movie and witness what is thematically and visually possible for the future of the Batman franchise, and why Matt Reeves is likely the director who will deliver an artistic-quality equivalent of the Dark Knight Trilogy within the sensibilities of the DC shared universe and with a new, unique style.

9.9

Amazing

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