Too many movies released this summer are best described as being almost-good, which is hardly enough to get excited about. On the other hand, while Matt Reeves’ War For the Planet of the Apes overreaches in the final stretch, it comes this-close to being a masterpiece.
The third in a trilogy that started with Rupert Wyatt’s excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Reeves staggering, if overwhelmingly bleak, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), the latest and presumably last is easily the best of the bunch.
Earth is dominated by intelligent apes and mankind is mostly wiped out from a virus. The towering leader ape, Caesar (embodied by a motion-captured Andy Serkis) wants to be left alone in his forest hideout, though human soldiers are constantly hunting and killing his fellow apes. Caesar’s fateful encounter with the cold, crazy Colonel (Woody Harrelson in a typically great, chilling performance) sends him on a mission of vengeance. Along the way, he discovers the state of mankind and the Colonel’s methods of controlling those damn dirty apes.
Reeves finds a perfect balance in tone, allowing the rich emotion of Rise and the dread of Dawn to coexist in a neo-western with horseback riding, gun-toting apes. This is the tough sci-fi western that Logan wanted to be and couldn’t quite pull off.
Once the third act reveals itself to be set in one location and focused on the world of Harrelson’s Colonel, the momentum halts and things get very heavy-handed. I won’t describe the visuals but there are unspoken, obvious references to World War II internment camps. As though that weren’t enough, the Colonel gives a lengthy speech with an on-the-nose biblical reference and explains how the apes are “building a wall.” I kept waiting for him to add, “…it’s gonna be a great wall, a tremendous wall and the apes are gonna pay for it!” He doesn’t, in a rare example of restraint.
Reeves and his co-screenwriter Mark Bomback craft a great story with complex, endearing characters but should have trusted the audience to get all the political and social references without their constant nudging. Even the great Rod Serling, who famously concocted the legendary ending of the 1968 Planet of the Apes, knew how to fashion a great allegory without overdoing the talking points.
If the idea was to align this final entry with the original Planet of the Apes series, then something is off. While the concluding scenes are satisfying from a narrative standpoint, they don’t allow for the kind of closure and introductory notes that create an easy transition from this to the Charlton Heston-starring 1968 original. Perhaps one more Apes prequel would do the trick (and if this one is a blockbuster, then another prequel is all but guaranteed).
As in the prior entries, the visual effects are so good, you’ll forget quickly that you’re looking at actors whose faces and bodies are covered by CGI magic. The scenes set in the apes’ habitat are once again spellbinding, as are the close-ups; I always believed I was watching intelligent, evolved talking apes.
While Dawn had an ensemble of human characters I didn’t care about (and can hardly remember three years later), the emphasis in War is wisely fixed on the ape’s perspective. Although the screenplay’s ambitions aren’t fully met in the end, the level of achievement in a filmmaking and visual effects is off the charts.
War For the Planet of the Apes eventually becomes as subtle as a political cartoon, but there are powerful, vivid scenes throughout. In addition to Serkis’ hypnotic Caesar, another great simian performance is Steve Zahn’s funny, dazzling turn as “Bad Ape.” But my favorite character is a soulful orangutan named Maurice, played by Karin Konoval. Toby Kebbell reprises his terrifying Koba from the prior installment. Two movies in, I still can’t spot Judy Greer as Cornelia, though that’s kind of the point: we don’t see the actors underneath but become immersed in their characters and the world they inhabit.
While overstuffed on provocative material, Reeve’s film basks in its grand storytelling and brilliant filmmaking. There’s a lot of life left in these apes and their troubling, decades-spanning cautionary tales. To end this properly, allow me to quote a line from Troy McClure’s “Stop The Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off!” musical: “I hate every ape I see, from chimpan-A, to chimpanzee…”