The Planet of the Apes franchise has always been about the apocalypse. That 20th Century Fox rebooted this franchise with modest expectations back in 2011 said more about its stable than it did about the Apes themselves.
Fast forward six years and we have the culmination of a series of films that started with the wiping out of humanity and got bleaker from there. From the iconic final shot of Franklin Schaffner’s original to the poignant one of today’s, the Apes franchise has never shied away from allegory. So is it with Matt Reeves’ film, War for the Planet of the Apes.
And it says some very uncomfortable things about what anyone is willing to do in order to survive a crisis. Not just the humans, who are again portrayed with little sympathy, but the apes as well.
I’ve been a huge fan of these films for most of my life. WABC’s afternoon movie would do Ape-Week decades before Shark Week became a thing. At least once a year I was glued to the TV watching them. Yes, they are b-movies, but I love great b-movies, so sue me.
The new films far transcend their b-movie trappings by taking the material seriously against a cultural zeitgeist of growing uncertainty about the future. In that respect, what was fresh in the late 1960’s is also fresh today and why Tim Burton’s reboot was both mis-timed and badly executed.
This is a stunning movie that I believe will get better with successive viewings, much like Reeves’ last film in the series Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And the reason for this is character. Like Charlton Heston’s irrepressible Taylor in the original, Caesar’s virtues and faults drive the story forward.
And Caesar, as played by Andy Serkis, is one of film history’s great protagonists. A fundamentally decent person who is dragged by circumstance and survival into a horrible place, physically and emotionally, in this film. His decency cost him dearly in Dawn, where he misjudged his lieutenant Koba’s hatred for humanity, and now he and his tribe pay a terrible price.
War of the Soul
The War in this film is not just the existential threats to both apes and humans, it is the war for our humanity that is challenged by events like these. Humanity is doomed. The only question is whether they will take everything else with it in the process.
Again, there’s a metaphor here about power and the unseating of those with it by their own over-reach that can be read any way you choose. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel McCollough embodies this, embracing a nihilism that is both disturbing and, unfortunately, all too familiar.
It is refreshing to see in a franchise genre film that events are not driven by some unseen external ticking clock which is a hallmark of modern screenplay structure. It’s effective and gets the job done, but it is also cheap when it’s lopped on for no good reason.
One shows up in the second half of War for the Planet of the Apes but it does so in a way that only heightens the stakes for the choices these characters are forced to take. It’s not just there to make sure the story ends.
Most summer tentpole films are all cookie cutter structure, passable dialogue and great visuals. When I finally sat down to watch, for example, last summer’s Civil War from Marvel, a film I was really looking forward to, I found myself appalled at how lazy the plotting and adolescent the social commentary was.
It wasn’t resonant, it was perfunctory and deeply disappointing.
Reeves’ Ape films have reached for much higher goals than that. And that bravery pays massive dividends. This is not an action-packed film with monstrous set pieces. This is a character-driven fight for survival that never breaks its stride. In fact, at times, Reeves’ goes out of his way to stop momentum dead cold, unexpectedly, to pull us right back in to the costs of these events.
Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape and Nova brighten things up helping to balance out the grimness of it all. Both characters could have gone horribly wrong but instead are integral to the motivations of the Colonel and his men.
War Against Nature
It’s a bleak story, set in the dead of winter, and you never once feel like anyone was destined to survive. Even War’s final confrontation between Caesar and the Colonel eschews cheap thrills for character.
The action, blocking and stunt-work are organic to the story. There is nothing that happens in this film that feels like fan service. As much as I love the two new Star Wars films, both of them have immense amount of action that was designed to ‘give the fans what they want’ rather than build it organically from the choices characters make.
And that’s what sets War for the Planet of the Apes apart from the rest of the genre. This film, in terms of pace, story and commentary, has more in common with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven than it does with Wonder Woman. Many critics went for the easy references to Apocalypse Now, but I think they missed the point.
Sure, there are obvious nods to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness here, but Unforgiven is the better comparable, for my money. Caesar and William Munny are driven by selfishness and set in motion things that can only end one way.
Technically, the film is a marvel. The animation is where all the money was spent and it was spent wisely. All of the performances are top-notch. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel may be like Kurtz, but he’s no Brando, thankfully.
And Reeves’ pulls off with him the same feat he paid off with Gary Oldman in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, he made this awful person relatable, if only for a little while. Harrelson is terrifying and makes a fantastic foil for Caesar.
War for the Planet of the Apes was everything I was hoping for after how good Dawn was and nothing like I was expecting. This is a beautiful film that ends this chapter in the Apes story that makes all of the pain and suffering worth it while reminding us that none of us gets out of here whole.