It’s no exaggeration to say there’s more humanity in the first 15 minutes of this silly animated ape film than the entirety of the Transformers franchise. Thankfully, War for the Planet of the Apes, a more seamless and assured outing than the first two films in the re-booted series, is anything but silly.
Affective drama and interpersonal (interspecies?) politics create a complicate world where murder and mercy are equally probable outcomes. Madness hangs over the proceedings, with heroes and villains forced to put their souls at hazard with each terrible decision. Perhaps the greatest virtue of War for the Planet of the Apes is that it captures the futility of war without ever glamorizing the abhorrent carnage.
Director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, 2014, Let Me In, 2010) cares less about bloodshed than the fevered blood coursing through his tortured hero, Caesar (Andy Serkis). Two years removed from the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar and his enclave of super-smart apes are feeling the sting of the evil Koba’s (Toby Kebbell) efforts to goad humanity into a protracted war. A reticent Caesar fortifies his ranks inside a visually stunning waterfall hideout, replete with elaborate caves and a buttress of sharpened spikes. Even Caesar is powerless to stop a renegade Colonel (Woody Harrelson) hell-bent on conquest, however, and the apes are quickly drawn into an escalating clash of ideals and firepower.
Those expecting a dizzying assortment of action set pieces and battlefield heroics will be disappointed by this outing. With the exception of an intense raid on Caesar’s forest compound to open the film and a spectacular assault on the Colonel’s fortress to wrap things up, the remainder of War for the Planet of the Apes stays focused on building character and tension. The dark motivations that torment Caesar, particularly a growing lust for vengeance, are constantly challenged by his pledge to protect the apes from future reprisals.
Further compromising his bloodlust is a chance encounter with an orphaned Human girl (Amiah Miller), who has lost her ability to speak due to a mutation in the Simian Flu virus that nearly destroyed mankind. The ape’s desire to nurture and protect this innocent girl (whose identity is a clever callback to the original Planet of the Apes,1968) makes for some of the film’s most emotionally involving moments.
As with the previous two installments, Caesar remains the emotional core of the story. He endures nearly Messianic levels of anguish to inspire strength in his enslaved brethren. The Biblical references are admittedly stretched to ridiculous proportions, with Caesar literally leading his followers through the desert to the Promised Land. Still, this adds some welcome depth to a story lacking much of the social commentary that punctuated the original Planet of the Apes films.
That’s not to say that War for the Planet of the Apes is bereft of subtext. There are plenty of nods to the injustices we inflict upon one another. The Colonel’s labor camp ruthlessly exploits the apes, and his soldiers do everything in their power to belittle and degrade their prisoners. Jingoistic and dehumanizing slogans adorn the soldiers’ helmets, such as “Monkey Killer” or “Bedtime for Bonzo,” evoking some of the imagery and hostility of past Human warfare. Conflict, it seems, has always enabled our most venomous creativity.
And still Caesar struggles to maintain the best part of his spirit, even in the face of unimaginable tragedy. He locks wills with the monstrous Colonel, who has his own demons to exorcise. Watching Harrelson languidly shave his bald head with a straight razor amidst the cheers of his subservient cadre of soldiers beautifully conjures the madness of Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. In fact, the graffiti of war proclaims this to be “Ape-Pocalypse Now” on the walls of some long-abandoned catacombs.
The visual effects from Reeves’ creative team, as well as the computer-rendered performances of Serkis and his pseudo-simian cast mates are uniformly inspired. Serkis remains the motion capture king, lending naturalistic movement and facial expressions to complement the seamless computer trickery. In 2014s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, there was a lengthy period of adjustment to accept the artifice of walking, talking, and horseback riding apes. Here, the buy-in is instantaneous, with each primate adopting recognizable postures and mannerisms, helping them to blend flawlessly into the real-world backdrops.
Some much needed comic relief is provided by the film’s lone simian newcomer, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). Sequestered in an abandoned sky resort in Northern California, this zoo escapee learned to speak by parroting human onlookers. His favorite expression seems to be, “Oh no!” which he’s keen to utter when asked to do anything remotely dangerous. He also has questionable taste in winter wear, right down to his Arctic parka and fuzzy beanie. Zahn adds just enough levity to avoid tedium in this otherwise somber struggle for independence.
Ultimately, War for the Planet of the Apes is about as much of a war film as Logan is a superhero movie. War may be used to frame its themes about sacrifice and selflessness, but it also demands to be taken seriously as a straightforward drama. Yes, it’s a bit too long and has difficulty settling on an ending, but the otherwise sturdy script and airtight structure make these trespasses easily forgivable. For a forgotten franchise that no one was clamoring to resurrect, these damn dirty apes have proven quite entertaining.