“If we lose, this will be a planet of APES!”
What an incredible surprise the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise has been. After Tim Burton tried, and miserably failed, to relaunch the brand in 2001, Rupert Wyatt cracked the formula with 2011’s successful Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But it was Matt Reeves who took the newly-formed franchise to new heights with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, one of the best blockbusters of the modern age and a not-so-subtle anti-gun allegory to boot. Now Reeves returns with the bleakest entry in this rebooted story yet, War for the Planet of the Apes. With this film, Reeves cements himself as a truly gifted filmmaker, one able to wield light and shadow to his bidding and find cinematic splendor amongst special effects pixels.
Set two years after the events of Dawn, War finds ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) hiding in the forests with his colony of super-intelligent primates. All Caesar wants is to live in peace, but humans, being the terrible, war-like species that we are, are having none of it. A villainous Colonel (Woody Harrelson) continues to send his men to attack and slaughter the apes, but more often than not the apes have the upper hand. Complicating things is the fact that the humans are now aided by a faction of apes who are still loyal to Koba, the deranged bonobo who caused so much trouble in the previous film. As War for the Planet of the Apes starts, Caesar and his army successfully defeat a battalion of the Colonel’s men, killing all but a handful. Then Caesar makes what will likely be a big mistake: he shows mercy to the human prisoners and lets them go, with a message to give to the Colonel: leave us alone and we’ll return the favor. Unfortunately for Caesar and those close to him, the Colonel is deaf to this offer of peace, and the military man and his army return and kill several apes close to Caesar.
Caesar sends the survivors to safety, while setting off on journey of revenge. These are the strongest moments of War for the Planet of the Apes, as Caesar, the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary) and the gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), travel through the decimated countryside. These are quiet, reflective moments that seem as if they belong in an anti-Western from the 1970s. Along the way they pick up a mute human orphan (Amiah Miller), whose true identity is a nice little Easter egg for fans of the original Planet of the Apes series. They also encounter the scene-stealing Bad Ape, played to perfection by Steve Zahn, a source of much needed levity in an otherwise dreary film.
Had War for the Planet of the Apes remained firmly within the confines of its quiet second act, it might very well be a modern masterpiece; something akin to McCabe & Mrs. Miller with CGI primates. But modern audiences crave action and blood with these films, so it’s inevitable that War has to succumb to a brutal third act, where Caesar ends up captive in a hellish prison camp run by the Colonel. Harrelson, as the vile Colonel, is clearly having a lot of fun with the role, and there are one or two occasions where he appears to be doing an impression of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. But the Colonel’s motives — special purity, a thirst for war — are so standard that they border on cliche. There’s a lack of nuance to the character, making him seem more like a stock comic book villain than the other fully-rounded characters who have inhabited this franchise.
Of course, the humans are secondary to these films. The real stars are the apes, and once again they are a marvel of modern special effects. Special effects have become so rote, so commonplace, that it’s almost impossible to be impressed with them anymore. The spectacle of seeing something new and exciting is gone; instead, we’re just seeing the same old same old. But Weta Workshop continues to break the mold and do remarkable things with these films. There are certain shots where it’s almost impossible to believe these are CGI creations and not flesh-and-blood creatures. This is only heightened through the work of Serkis, who has made a name for himself playing motion-capture characters. Serkis manages to convey more emotion with his motion-capture work than most actors on screen can pull-off in a series of films.
War for the Planet of the Apes is an unapologetically dour film, and you have to commend a big Hollywood blockbuster that’s so committed to being so bleak. At the same time, the heaviness begins to weigh on you, to the point where you wish everyone would lighten up just a tiny bit. Does a movie about apes riding horses really need to be this depressing? Some will likely say yes, but I’m not so sure. Perhaps it’s inevitable — after all, the first film in the original Apes franchise concluded with one of the most jaw-droppingly bleak endings in film history.
There will inevitably be another film in this series. It’s too profitable, too well-regarded to let end here. Yet Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback manage to wrap things up as succinctly as possible, to the point that were this to be the end, fans would have satisfaction. We shall see. War for the Planet of the Apes may not be as successful a film as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — for one thing, the movie is needlessly long, can we please bring back the 90 minute movie? — but it’s still a memorable piece of modern big budget filmmaking. And with the real world the way it is right now, perhaps it’s not such a bad idea to let the human race be driven to the brink of annihilation. After all, the human race had its chance, and it blew it up. You maniacs.