If I’m being honest, War for the Planet of the Apes is not quite my cup of tea. For all the hype and all the build-up that came from a hyper-intelligent first film and an ultra-gorgeous second, it honestly could have been more than what we’d already seen. However, while it’s thematically nothing new for the Shakespearean/Biblical prequel series to the beloved Planet of the Apes franchise, it is visually one of the most interesting films we’ve seen in a long time, and I applaud Hollywood for allowing such a film to be made.
It’s been two years since the rebel ape Koba (Toby Kebbel) started a war between the humans and the apes. An aged Caesar (Andy Serkis) desires nothing more than for the bloodshed to come to an end, and for the humans to allow his tribe to carry on a peaceful existence. However, things change when a mysterious figure named The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) leads his squadron on a raid into Caesar’s home, killing his wife and oldest son, and leaving only the infant Cornelius behind. Out for revenge, Caesar heads out on a suicide mission with his closest advisors, Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) to get revenge for the crime. After a long journey, and the adoption of two new members in scavenger Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and a young mute girl named Nova (Amiah Miller), the group finds themselves in the clutches of the Colonel’s Ape Concentration Camp, and a battle of wills breaks out as the apes must plot their escape and their revenge in order to ensure their species’ survival.
Let’s start by examining the great things about this film, before I register my complaints. Matt Reeves has really made a high-caliber blockbuster here, at least on a technical level. It goes without saying at this point that this trilogy has some of the finest special effects ever put on film. The look of these apes is truly astounding, as even the texture of their hair looks realistic, and there’s no faking the haunted look in each of their eyes as they do their best to survive. However, it’s not just the effects that stand out. This film takes visual cues from the masters, as each wide frame captures the scope of David Lean, and pays just as much visual homage to Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia as the plot does to The Bridge on the River Kwai. Furthermore, tying to the themes of Exodus and the New Testament, the film pays visual homage to The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, whether through sweeping shots of wandering apes in the desert to the very blunt image of Caesar strung out on a cross in front of his loved ones (this is one of the few times I’m ok with the very blatant Jesus allegory, and no, that does not give Hacksaw Ridge or Man of Steel the right to try it as well). This is just a gorgeously shot, gorgeously edited film that draws from the best to make a truly special blockbuster the likes of which we don’t usually get.
However, the issues with this film don’t rest with the themes or the filmmaking. These lie with the storytelling, and mainly in the way this film is split into two disjointed halves. The first half of this movie is definitely competently made and well-told, but there’s nothing new to it. It doesn’t even expand upon the themes established in the series, it simply feels like a retread of stuff we already know. It’s not as thematically rich as, say, the first film, which really explored what brought the apes together and the strategy behind Caesar’s rise to power. Hell, the first half of this movie isn’t even as thematically rich as the second one, which explored themes of rebellion and fear amongst nations. It just sort of hits the beats you expect it to hit to move the plot forward, including an opening focused on an extended Vietnam War metaphor. Look, I’m not against Vietnam War metaphors in film. They made Aliens memorable, for sure. However, it’s been forty years since that war, and we’ve had two since. Surely there’s other metaphors you can go with to prove your point about war? It’s trite, it’s cliché, and it speaks to why this film’s first half doesn’t feel special in any way. It also makes the film feel disjointed when the apes suddenly find themselves in the Colonel’s prison camp, as you can barely recall what came before to lead them there. However, if the first half of this movie is bland to a fault, the second half is one of the most vibrant in recent blockbuster history. This is where the bulk of the film’s talent lies, what with the tense standoffs and the cruelty of man towards nature/his fellow man and the truly spectacular prison break sequence. I was on the edge of my seat for the last hour of this film. This is spectacular, thematically rich filmmaking, and it makes me mad that this isn’t what we saw the entire film, instead of a second half that drowns out what happened in the first. Had they spread out these themes and made a more well-rounded production, perhaps we would have been talking about something really special.
As for the performances, I really don’t know what else to say about Andy Serkis. Serkis’ work on this series is nothing short of phenomenal. His Caesar is the most emotionally rich franchise character in any blockbuster from the past thirty years. His character embodies weariness, age, wisdom, revenge, fear, and justice, all at the same time. It may be years down the road, and perhaps not even in my lifetime, but people will look back at him as one of the greatest actors of all time. I also want to give a shout-out to Karin Konoval, the woman who plays Caesar’s advisor Maurice. Her portrayal has always been my favorite in this series, and that fact is no different here, as Maurice is wise, kind, funny, and heartbreaking, especially in the film’s dramatic conclusion. As for comic relief, there’s nothing better than Steve Zahn, who rakes in the most laughs and even a bit of sympathy as Bad Ape. These three give the best performances, and they aren’t even playing humans! I’m sure that some people will be asking about Harrelson, and I will agree he is very good, even if I wasn’t totally won over by his performance. At the very least, he has a solid monologue in the film’s second half. I don’t think anyone in this film is going to be looking at an Oscar campaign, but I will say that they are doing stellar work for a summer flick.
War for the Planet of the Apes is one of those rare blockbusters that uses its technical prowess to tell an intelligent, philosophical film that sends a warning to the rest of society. Here, the question is raised over whether mankind has had its day in the sun, if our quest for technology and our inclination to cruelty will eventually bring about our own destruction. However, unlike past films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which ended on the hopeful note that we could avoid such a fate, War states fairly matter-of-factly that the answer is no. It’s an answer that was stated with increased clarity in the original 1968 film, but it has rarely had the impact that it does here. And with each day making us fear more and more that this is the road that we have taken, this is the film that the world needs and deserves, in all of its achievements and its flaws.