'War for the Planet of the Apes'
Somewhere in between all the superhero sequels, ‘Star Wars’ spinoffs, and CGI talking animal silliness, the ‘Planet of the Apes’ reboot has become the most intelligent blockbuster franchise of recent years. In ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’, director/co-writer Matt Reeves has created a summer tentpole with such a cynical and cruel portrayal of humanity that it could only come out in the midst of the Trump administration. It’s unlikely that this will be the biggest blockbuster of the summer, but it will undoubtedly be the most culturally relevant.
After a little text crawl to catch new viewers up to speed, Reeves plunges his audience right into the middle of a brutal battle. The apes and humans haven’t stopped fighting in the years since the last film (2014’s ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’). While the apes are winning, the weight of all the bloodshed is starting to take its toll on their leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis). When the new human leader played Woody Harrelson (he’s never named beyond “The Colonel”) executes a sneak attack assassination that claims the lives of some of Caesar’s closest compatriots, Caesar decides to head out to the woods for revenge. He’s joined by a few close friends and haunted by visions of his former foe, Koba. Caesar is out to kill and feels himself going over to the dark side. This is a journey to the soul, a la ‘Heart of Darkness’/’Apocalypse Now’, and is littered with references to those texts. When Harrelson’s Colonel arrives, he rants like Kurtz about his vision of destroying the world and executes a “greatest hits” of atrocities in human history. Somehow, Reeves makes the audience root for the extinction of humanity, and it’s hard to argue with the evidence.
This is a rather bleak blockbuster. That’s how Reeves works. Images are always cast in shadow, landscapes covered in snowfall and death. There are action sequences and spectacle, thrilling stuff even. But despite the title and trailers, this isn’t a movie driven by monkey gunfight excitement. The journey is interior and existential. The conclusions aren’t easy to take. All of the ‘Planet of the Apes’ films contain some sort of dark social subtext, but ‘War’ is particularly ideological. By the time Harrelson starts spouting off monologues about positive bigotry, welcome destruction, and obsession with building a wall, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons to the current political landscape. This is an angry movie about discrimination, that visually references the Holocaust, slavery, and the crucifixion in the same sequence. It’s a very unflattering portrayal of humanity, designed to force viewer empathy onto the apes over the humans. However, the film is not without hope. It’s just not always easy to see that.
The motion capture ape effects are even more stunning here than they were in ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’. The Weta Digital crew have created a primate cast so believable that you barely even focus on the effects. Instead, the human performances beneath the CGI come through with extraordinary power. Andy Serkis delivers a stunner of a lead performance, building on all he’s done in this series before to land on a wise state of bitter fury. He’s heartbreaking and inspiring in a performance that will hopefully garner some award attention despite all the pixels covering the actor.
Woody Harrelson is almost as good as the personification of all that’s wrong with humanity. The stunt-casting works. He’s as pathetic as he is frightening, a character of human weakness given power through hatred, brute strength and weaponry. Around the sidelines, the likes of Steve Zahn (as the eccentric comic relief), Amiah Miller (as the last hope for the humans), and Karin Konoval (returning as the thoughtful orangutan Maurice) are all impressive. Nevertheless, this film is a ultimately dialogue between Serkis and Harrelson.
For all the remarkable strengths of ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’, the movie has some weaknesses too. The film can feel a little too grimdark for its own good, the comedic relief is often misplaced, and a late inning prison escape set-piece goes on a little long. Still, these are minor whiffs in a film that otherwise gets far more right than anyone could have predicted. Matt Reeves has created a ‘Planet of the Apes’ blockbuster of astounding technical skill and remarkably potent meaning and subtext. It’s a miracle this thing even exists, despite its successful franchise pedigree. It’s not often that a summer movie will ask so many pertinent questions and even less likely that it would be presented subtly enough to allow 15 minutes or more pass without any dialogue.
‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is exactly the type of movie that the franchise filmmaking machine was supposed to destroy. It’s a bitter little pill of truth released in a sea of $200 million fantasy distractions. Hopefully, the movie gets the success and accolades it deserves, because it’s practically guaranteed to be one of the most ambitious and resonant American films of the year. All that, plus scenes with monkeys firing machine guns on horseback, what a time to be alive…