Film Review – War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes

After gaining awareness, leading an uprising and starting an independent life, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his society of evolved apes have one more transgression to contend with before as the latter part of the title indicates, inheriting a planet. The third film in Twentieth Century Fox’s trilogy rebooting the sci-fi franchise, closes out the journey of the Apes’ conquest that started with Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Director Matt Reeves took over for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and retakes the reigns again on War for the Planet of the Apes.

It’s an apes’ world and humans are just mucking things up. An army platoon of men hold the line in a military, science base on the northern border of California. Their leader, known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is hellbent on wiping out Caesar and the whole ape society. Meanwhile, Caesar is trying to find a way for the apes to leave the Red Wood forest they’ve been living in and get away from humans. After a failed attempt to raid the ape village, the captured humans are sent back to the Colonel as an offering of peace, but the Colonel has other plans.

Both Rise and Dawn featured rather lengthy and elaborate battles between Caesar’s apes and the humans, and despite its title of War, this third installment surprising does something different. Caesar becomes obsessed with his own need for vengeance with the Colonel and decides to go after the Colonel himself and send the apes out of the forest without him. Caesar’s need for blood though costs his tribe their freedom as they are captured by the Colonel’s army and brought to the base Caesar himself is headed towards.

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What Reeves and company have crafted is something more in line with a Biblical epic than a sci-fi action film. There are certainly featured sequences of action and spectacle, death and heroics, but there are more scenes brooding over the plight of the apes and Caesar’s decisions that brought them to a new found captivity. Without food and water the apes are forced to build a wall that will protect the base from an incoming army out of the north. Mixing themes from Apocalypse Now and The Ten Commandments, we are presented with a recognizable situation that leads to a foreseeable end.

And while the deviation in tone and action is unexpected and welcomed, Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback have filled their movie with overwrought melodrama and drawn out scenes of ennui. A movie populated almost entirely by CGI characters occupying actual physical spaces requires a certain touch of humanity to pull it off as dramatically believable. However, scenes drag out as characters whisper their feelings, a technique designed to communicate a level of importance to the audience. The music, somber and operatic, gives an extra weight to the emotion and burdens Caesar’s shoulders even more as he tries to devise a way to free his kind and escape humanity’s grasp.

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The level of seriousness imbued on the plot reaches a crescendo that borders on outright silliness at times, almost threatening to undo the dramatic tension. Like the original series that lasted between 1968 and 1976, including the television program, this is reaching for an allegory of significance beyond its ape versus human premise. Unlike the original series this fails to tap into a cultural zeitgeist of importance that the originals did in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Rounding out this new trilogy are series of clichés bereft of a statement to make in allegory outside universal, high-concepts such as, some people get treated badly.

For a blockbuster seeking to thrill on spectacle this is standard. For a blockbuster seeking to stand on the laurels of being something different, it’s ultimately disappointing in regards to actually having something to say, which this movie repeatedly tells you it’s trying to do. The biggest disappointing factor though maybe the movie’s sole human anchor, Harrelson. A solid villain in his own right, it’s very clear from his line delivery, physical reactions and onscreen blocking, Harrelson is not comfortable with acting against CGI characters. His performance looks stiff half the time and comical the other.

Ultimately these things don’t ruin the movie. It’s rather solid when it’s not meandering through overly pretentious terrain and Reeves controls the escalating action with an even hand. It even sports successful humor when implemented with genuine sincerity instead of ham-fisted grabs at being cute. It’s big, bold and emotional so some audiences are sure to eat this up in a summer searching for a breakout hit. Some might walk away thinking, that was okay.


Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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