Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes.
War for the Planet of the Apes is beautifully made but deeply unsatisfying.
The climax to the new Planet of the Apes trilogy has a lot of expectations attached to it. The previous installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was lauded by critics and audiences. There is also the nostalgia factor behind a franchise that is still beloved after 50 years and nine movies. And finally, as the big finale of the modern trilogy, it needed to answer questions while sending the series off on a high note.
Once again helmed by director Matt Reeves, War for the Planet of the Apes is a tremendous accomplishment from a film making standpoint. It has gorgeous visuals, phenomenal CG and practical effects, and manages its 2 1/2 hour pace gracefully. For all that, I found the film to be underwhelming and overbearing in its big themes. For a movie about talking monkeys with “War” in the title, this film ends up being too high minded.
War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
After a deadly encounter with the remnants of humanity, Caesar seeks to lead his simian brethren away from their forest home and the humans who hunt them. Realizing that humanity will never see them as anything as a threat, he sends his son out to discover a new place they can settle away from people. Standing in his way is The Colonel, a single-minded mad man who believes that the only hope for humankind is the complete destruction of Caesar’s apes. He provokes Caesar in the hopes of sparking an all out war for supremacy.
Matt Reeves has crafted a movie that is even more technically impressive than Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The action sequences blend computer and practical effects wonderfully and without much trickery. The shots are often wide and lingering, daring you to disbelieve them. The sound work is excellent, providing punctuation to the action without obscuring it. There are some really great sequences that put together all aspects of of sound, choreography, effects and acting flawlessly.
Once again Andy Serkis proves that his “performance capture” technique is unrivaled. The apes move fluidly and realistically, have big and expressive features without appearing uncanny, and turn in strong performances. You get scenes of pathos, rage, joy and amusement that never feel unreal. From the digital effects to the physical acting, the apes look great. The people on the other hand…
The human performances are were we start to see the film become unbalanced. Woody Harrelson plays the villainous Colonel with too much gusto. He’s a scenery chomping baddy through and through. It’s a bit jarring that we have such a cartoon villain against such realistic talking monkeys. The other human focal point, Nova, is a damaged little girl who can’t speak and acts out childishly. I didn’t see that she added much to the plot other than to give Caesar another issue to appear virtuous about. All of the people in this film are very one dimensional, and their motivations don’t jibe, despite some lame attempt to show how the simian virus is making them more animalistic.
Hear No Evil, See No Evil…
That in a nutshell is the problem. War for the Planet of the Apes is a very one-sided affair. In Dawn, we got a nuanced perspective on both sides. Jason Clarke played a conflicted engineer who acts as a bridge between the two species, someone to meet Caesar half way. Even the “villain”, Gary Oldman, had noble goals and felt sympathetic. Here, we get over-the-top villainy from scene one. It becomes obvious because it is only ever contrasted with apes being heroic. Even a marginal sub-plot about Caesar seeking revenge wraps up with Caesar coming out morally superior. There are no shades of gray.
The climax of the film exposes this trope in a way that really makes the film come off as manipulative. I can’t break it down without spoilers, but things happen so you are left with the unequivocal impression: apes are completely virtuous and humans are completely depraved. There is no war here, and certainly no conflict between equals. I’ve seen critics say “this movie makes you root against humanity!” The truth is that this film gives you NO choice BUT to root against humanity.
Instead of a struggle between equally desperate forces, we get heavy-handed moralizing. Caesar is put into situations where he’s either Monkey Jesus or Monkey Moses. The latter quite literally, as he stops a whipping like Charlton Heston in The 10 Commandments and then leads his people out of slavery (get it, Charlton Heston was in Planet of the Apes too!) What we needed (and were promised in all of the promo material) was Monkey Spartacus: a cunning leader who leads his overwhelmed forces in battle. I guess they used up all of the clever ideas for asymmetrical warfare in the last movie.
Turning the monkeys into slaves robs them of agency. They become oppressed victims just so the script can show once again how utterly in the right they are. The films had been building sympathy for them just fine, all while allowing them to fight and defend themselves. The whole arc of the series was building to a war. Instead we get a peaceful rebellion.
Exodus from the Planet of the Apes.
This final installment of the Planet of the Apes prequels has redeeming merits but feels out character for the trilogy. A fantastic start and great effects can’t paper over a story that wants to be biblical in the worst way. By wrapping the series up in such a pat manner, it flings poop at the previous entries. As soon as I was done watching it, I just wanted to go re-watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes instead of thinking about this movie. A series that had interesting philosophical implications and nuanced characters in conflict with each other becomes flat and pedantic. Humanity deserved better. Caesar deserved better. Audiences deserved better.