War for the Planet of the Apes – Michael Giacchino


“Apes together strong!” – helmed by director Matt Reeves and once again featuring actor Andy “Gollum” Serkis in his famous performance capture role as Caesar, an intelligent chimpanzee, “War for the Planet of the Apes” races to cinemas worldwide, providing a satisfying conclusion to the epic saga. 

Continuing the events that have taken place in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, this movie’s predecessor, the reboot’s final entry centers around Caesar’s own, very personal fight to wrestle with his darker instincts in order to protect his species from being killed by mankind, led by Colonel McCullough, an iron-fisted soldier obsessed with wiping out Caesar and his tribe to preserve his people’s role as the dominant species. Strengthened by immensely positive critical reponse particularly praising the movie’s complex narrative, its stunning visual effects as well as Serkis’s impressive acting performance, accolades are simultaneously largely attributed to composer Michael Giacchino’s musical score who, after previously having written music for the film’s predecessor, returns for the grand finale, further extending his working relationship with director Matt Reeves.

Once again, Giacchino finds himself in the rather uncomfortable position to, on the one side, honor a popular series’s musical legacy while, on the other side, being asked to bring his very own voice to the table. Having taken the reins from composers Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman and Patrick Doyle who had already written original scores for the franchise before, Giacchino continues his musical path established in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, the composition’s characteristic emotional core being a mix-up of his scores for J.J. Abrams’s “Super 8” and the “Lost” TV series. Compared to his predecessor’s works, the soundscape has most in common with the one created by legendary Jerry Goldsmith, as Giacchino, quite unusual for the composer, dives deep into slightly tribal-sounding suspense and action writing – the percussion section is nearly omnipresent -, a clear reminder of the experimental sounds Goldsmith integrated into his original 1968 score. Apart from that, the 2017 composition is brought to life by a large symphony orchestra that gets supported by occasional choral accents which, while adding another emotional layer, give the music a certain feeling of operatic grandeur.

Building upon the thematic palette established in “Dawn”, the composer builds and expands as the story demands. Returning from Giacchino’s prior entry is his main theme based on a two-note motif both attributed to Caesar as well as the apes community itself in general. For “War”, Giacchino reportedly wanted to approach the saga’s finale like a mournful western on a purely stylistic level: “Caesar’s been on a crazy journey, and I was inspired seeing him grow and struggle,” the composer notes. “It’s heartbreak…and how close you skate to those lines that you try to avoid in your life.”

Representing this life-long journey, Giacchino creates a “quest theme”, representing the character’s struggle to survive in a dying world. Aggressively moving forward, it has a very Morricone-esque vibe to it as not only the melodic line but also the orchestration – noble horns, chanting choir and rhythmic guitar – strongly recall the Italian’s gritty western compositions. A brand-new theme is associated with Nova, a human war orphan that, despite the intense conflict between mankind and apes, gets adopted by Caesar’s tribe. Reflecting the child’s innocence in times of war, the composer gifted the character with a quite simple theme for piano and harp that repeats four times before resolving: “For me, it was all about capturing this suspended tone of someone who is lost, doesn’t have a family, or anywhere to go, and day after day is the same,” Giacchino says. “At the end, there’s a change when she walks into the prison camp, where she finds her strength – helping other people.” This seven-note idea is fleshed out into a recurring 12-note piano theme symbolizing Caesar’s ideal of family and his aim to protect his people from mankind.

A clear contrast is made by the brutal Colonel McCullough, played by Woody Harrelson, who represents the dark side of humanity. Giacchino sees him as a character who “single-mindedly protects himself after enduring a great deal of personal pain. In many ways, he’s more the animal than Caesar.” Musically illustrating this kind of behaviour, the Colonel’s theme is made up of repeated timpani drum hits, conveying the coming of dread.


Giacchino’s supense writing takes center stage in the album opener “Apes’ Past is Prologue”. Interestingly, the eleven-minute cue is credited to the composer’s 12-year old son Griffith Giacchino although the official cue sheets still bears his father’s name. Dissonant string writing and lonely woodwinds, combined with harsh percussion and various electronics, guide to listener to an earth suffering from the brutal on-going fight between apes and mankind, a dark soundscape clearly emulating Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score. This path is further continued in the subsequent “Assault of the Earth”, yet another rather uncomfortable suspense cue that, unfortunately, does not have the mysterious power its predecessor conveyed. The album’s first standout moment comes with the highly emotional “Exodus Wounds”. A repeated four-note motif, first performed by solo piano, then receiving a receiving a soaring rendition for full orchestra, creates an atmosphere full of melancholy and lost hope. Giacchino’s introduction to the gritty journey theme ends the cue.

“The Posse Polonaise” provides a lovely rendition of Nova’s theme for solo piano and harp before the composer reprises the powerful quest theme with chanting choir. An aggresssive action variation graces “The Bad Ape Bagatelle” whose frantic nature provides a welcoming pause from the suspense writing that prominently returns during “Koba Dependent”. Both “Don’t Luca Now” and “Apes Together Strong” see various statements of Nova’s theme being developed into a 12-note identity representing Caesar’s idea of team spirit and solidarity within a family. The latter one opens with a particularly sweet arrangement for glockenspiel, harp and warm oboe. Accompanied by distant choir, the theme’s brief rendition in the subsequent “A Tide in the Affairs of Apes” adds an almost religious feeling to the heartbreaking melody.

The pair of “The Ecstasy of the Bold” and “Planet of the Escapes” – yes, as you may have noticed, Giacchino’s usual puns are all over the place again – features Caesar’s destiny theme from the composer’s foregone “Apes” score in a bold, fast-paced arrangement very much in the vein of the his brand-new quest theme. String ostinati, relentless percussion, chanting choir and venturous brass now deliver a certainly more heroic take on the character. “The Hating Game” provides a badly needed moment of pure tranquility, temporarily breaking the carpet of perpetual melancholy, as the subsequent “A Man of Suicide” sees the composer returning to his suspense-focused writing: Aggressive string work, accompanied by raw percussion, helps to create a tension-filled atmosphere that is only slightly lightened up by some lonely piano tunes at the end of the five-minute cue.

Giacchino heralds the starts of the score’s massive finale with the outstanding “More Red Than Alive”. Over the curse of less than three minutes, the composer shifts from warm strings and noble brass introducing the family theme to an epic choir rendition soon fading into a fragile piano solo. “Migration”, musically anticipating Caesar’s theme, acts as an incredibly powerful, quasi-religious build-up to the subsequent “Paradise Found”, a gorgeous piece for full orchestra and choir mirroring the Apes’ journey to their promised land. Soft piano tunes, underpinned by warm string chords, first see the ape’s theme in full fashion and gradually lead into a truly grandiose statment of almost operatic grandeur.

The conclusive “End Credits” – sadly, we do not get another “Planet of the End Credits” this time – marks a wonderful send-off to the 75-minute album as the  composer once again summarizes the score’s main themes into a 9-minute listening. Delicate piano tunes, soon taken up by distant choir and Barryish horns, re-introduce Nova’s theme before the Apes’ gritty quest theme emerges in a circus-like waltz arrangement. Caesar’s theme is given annother bold standout before a male choir elegy closes out the score.

Composer Michael Giacchino (right) and director Matt Reeves (left) during the “War for the Planet of the Apes” choir record.

Michael Giacchino’s score for “War for the Planet of the Apes” is indeed a special one as it does not follow the usual, all-too-familiar Giacchino sketchbook to which the composer owes his enormous popularity. The unaccustomedly serious tone, combined with the harsh orchestration as well as occasional stylistic nods to John Barry and Ennio Morricone, certainly add a fresh flavour to Giacchino’s already enormously differentiated discography that has not been shown before. Some of the suspense writing might be a bit uncomfortable to listen to, sometimes, it lacks a more distinct personality and melodic variety, but this is largely lifted by the intelligently crafted narrative created by the composer.

In a time where Giacchino faces huge criticism for scoring nearly every high-budget Hollywood blockbuster, his recent “War for the Planet of the Apes” marks a very welcoming departure from the composer’s well-known, wrung-out style, for he successfully manages to deliver an utterly fresh orchestral score that does not shy away from flowing over with emotion. Embedded in multi-layered orchestration and a strong thematic basis, Giacchino easily succeeds in providing a satisfying conclusion to the rebooted “Apes” saga, further cementing his current status as one of the most consistently high-quality composers working in Hollywood nowadays – “War” not only proves to be a clear improvement upon its troubled predecessor, but will certainly be remembered as one of Giacchino’s most conceptually interesting efforts in quite a while.

Rating: ****

Music composed by Michael Giacchino. Conducted by Tim Simonec. Orchestrations by Tim Simonec and Jeff Kryka. Album produced by Michael Giacchino.

1. Apes’ Past is Prologue
2. Assault of the Earth
3. Exodus Wounds
4. The Posse Polonaise
5. The Bad Ape Bagatelle
6. Don’t Luca Now
7. Koba Dependent
8. The Ecstasy of the Bold
9. Apes Together Strong
10. A Tide in the Affairs of Apes
11. Planet of the Escapes
12. The Hating Game
13. A Man Named Suicide
14. More Red Than Alive
15. Migration
16. Paradise Found
17. End Credits

Album available on Sony Masterworks.


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