Illustration: Kevin K.
Set two years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in a time when women are given literally no speaking parts, War of the Planet of the Apes opens briefly honoring its titular promise: war, with heavy nods toward Vietnam. (If that the humans are fighting an enemy hidden in the forest isn’t on-the-nose enough, it’s reiterated with the apt “Kong” nickname for the apes.) The fights, we learn, are instigated by the rogue Colonel (Woody Harrelson), the latest military guy who wishes to wipe out ape-kind. Though ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis and countless computer banks, once again jockeying for some sort of awards recognition) offers the Colonel peace, it is of course not accepted, and the consequences lead to an assassination-revenge mission. Along the way, the would-be Colonel-killers pick up their own version of Aliens‘ Newt, a silent little blonde girl who, for some reason, cares more about the death of a recently-met gorilla than for her just-murdered father. They also find comic relief Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), the chimpanzee equivalent of Scooby Doo‘s Shaggy as a stoned snowboarder. And, after a climax that makes one wonder how no one else thought to do what Caesar spends about ten minutes on, apes once again take a step toward planetary domination.
War is the first of its franchise to be told wholly (save for that opening) from the simian perspective—for what have ended up being very timely reasons. Focused on a persecuted group—with, admittedly, a few notably terrible members—trying to fight against a xenophobic, jingoistic leader whom many are strongly fighting, it all-too-easily overlays upon the current United States political climate. But what saves, and hurts, War is that it is not quite the modern allegory it seems to have proposed when it was written a few years ago. And despite its Vietnam beginnings and search for a bald militant, it’s not fully an Apocalypse Now reinvention, either—no matter what its “Ape-pocalypse Now” graffiti moment insinuates. It’s instead a play on those things and too many others, including the Holocaust, internment camps, Civil War-era slavery, holy wars, and just as many films dealing with those subjects. In spite of being such an unwieldy pastiche with little to say about its influences, War still plays, due in no small part to some impressive, bleeding-edge filmmaking.
Undeniably, War for the Planet of the Apes looks great. The CGI, too-frequently noticeable in the last couple chapters, is here integrated nearly seamlessly. No matter the environment—which shifts from fur-dampening rain, to snow, to sun—the film’s computer-generated shrewdness of apes nearly always look completely convincing. Weta has clearly made some impressive steps here—though a lot of credit should also be given to the film’s cinematographer. Michael Seresin, director of photography on Dawn as well as Harry Potter series standout The Prisoner of Azkaban, shot the computer-generated characters like they were real subjects. They lurk in silhouette; they get under- and over-exposed. Not since Where the Wild Things Are have furry child-tenders been treated with enough respect to be beautifully backlit by a sunset.
Talking chimps on horseback, guns drawn, is an image that should always be either terrifying or hilarious. War treats it with a joyless matter-of-factness, and that’s perhaps the film’s biggest flaw. The original Planet of the Apes, put out almost five decades ago, was laid out like a Twilight Zone episode. A man was dropped into a truly bizarre conceit, and it closed on a timely, Cold War-era twist ending. War references that film heavily—setting up the likes of Cornelius and Nova for the next, perhaps fewer-prepositioned chapter—but it couldn’t be further from its spirit. Like its modern predecessors, War is an unnecessarily dour slog through an entertaining concept, even as, at a needless 140 minutes, it acts as a fulfilling concluding chapter. It’s a dark, satisfying, high-point of a finale to an uneven trilogy. But unlike, say, fellow blockbuster trilogy-closer Logan, it’s rarely as enjoyable as it could be.
War for the Planet of the Apes
Director: Matt Reeves
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Runtime: 140 minutes
Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Amiah Miller, Steve Zahn, Gabriel Chavarria, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Sara Canning