The original Planet of the Apes movie series started with one of the very best science fiction films of the late 1960’s, starring Charlton Heston as an astronaut who has mysteriously travelled hundreds of years into a future Earth where simians are ascendant and mankind are chattel. The sequels became increasingly awful, however, and by the fifth installment, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the story had become truly excruciating. The box office numbers reflected this reality and killed the series.
The reboot of this franchise has been one of the best success stories of modern Hollywood, however, starting with the smart, engaging Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) followed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). Both featured excellent effects – including an award winning motion capture performance by Andy Serkis – and respected, tied into and expanded the original story to reflect modern technology and sensibilities. Both are highly recommended.
Still, Planet of the Apes has the curse of bad sequels. Does this third film in the reboot succumb to the curse or does it live up to the first two films? The answer is surprisingly complicated, because War for the Planet of the Apes is a powerful and engaging film, but it’s dark. It’s ceaselessly dark, actually, and in both subtle and overt ways borrows much from the Academy Award winning Apocalypse Now and the psychological POW drama Bridge on the River Kwai.
The story this time is much more about the apes than the humans, revolving around Caesar (Andy Serkis), the ape leader of the simians. Smart, strategic and eloquent, he has let his wife Cornelia, young son Cornelius, and a large group of monkeys far into the Northern Californian woods, trying to stay far away from humans. Caesar is haunted by the spectre of the angry rebel gorilla Koba and insistent on his own need for revenge on The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), an increasingly unhinged human who is leading his troops on a search and destroy mission against apes. Their goal is complete genocide.
Because of the great tension between the two characters, the scenes between Caesar and The Colonel are by far the most interesting and compelling of the film. At one point The Colonel explains that apes are becoming smarter than humans and it’s just a matter of time before apes rule the planet. To stop that, every last one of them must be killed. But The Colonel has other things that drive him too, other choices he’s made that have led to almost unbearable guilt and despair.
Making the situation far more challenging is the disease that is spreading throughout the humans that causes them to lose the higher cognitive functions along with the ability to speak. The first film explained how a well-intentioned genetic experiment gave rise to intelligent simians with the ability to speak. This is the mirror illness, turning smart humans into dumb humans (literally and figuratively) even as it raises apekind to the apex of Earth’s predators.
War for the Planet of the Apes takes place two years after the previous film, Dawn, and the war between ape and man isn’t going well for the apes. It’s foreseeable that they could be completely wiped out by the gung ho Colonel (a definite nod to the insane and dangerous Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) from Apocalypse Now). This tears at Caesar’s basic pacifist beliefs too: does he want to kill the Colonel as an act of revenge, or to protect apekind?
Caesar, Maurice, Rocket and “Bad Ape” go off on their own mission to confront The Colonel and encounter the little human girl Nova (Amiah Miller), abandoned in the wilderness after her father is killed. They adopt her and she serves as an emotional counterpoint to the rabid Colonel and his troops. Most interesting of those soldiers is Preacher (Gabriel Chavarria), who has increasing reservations about how the humans are treating ape prisoners of war.
The entire story takes place in the woods and in a few encampments. In this installment there are no cities and very few primitive fortresses. There’s very little tech; it’s definitely post apocalypse. It’s a film about relationships and communication, though it also features some quite intense battle scenes in the film that will undoubtedly rival the upcoming WWII film Dunkirk.
Having said that, the film has some slow passages that could have been trimmed by a more aggressive editor and both Nova and Preacher are rather wasted. I was waiting for either of them to stand up and become central to the storyline, but that just wasn’t part of the script. In particular, Nova could have played an interesting role as the bridge, both species- and story-wise, between Caesar and The Colonel.
Still, the production values are extraordinary with nary a scene that doesn’t pull you in and look completely believable. You’ll completely accept that these CG-enhanced simians have deep emotional lives and mourn their losses just as we would a human death. The battle scenes are far better than expected for a film of this ilk and Serkis delivers a sterling performance as the motion-capture ape Caesar. Harrelson plays The Colonel fairly safe, however, and I would have liked to see more of a rough, dangerous edge, more mirroring the frighteningly unstable Kurtz.
There’s precious little humor, almost no scenic vistas as they trudge through the wilderness and while the ending makes sense, it’s surprisingly depressing when it should have left us with a sense of hope for the future. War of the Planet of the Apes is really a film about the rise of apes.
And it’s good. Definitely go see it if you’re interested in race relationships (which is what the film is really about, even from the very first scene), xenophobia and wartime refugees seeking safety and a new home, or if you just enjoy some powerful science fiction. Don’t go in, however, expecting a fun, amusing or inspirational story. There’s a good reason it’s called the War of the Planet of the Apes.