Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval
In 1968 Planet of the Apes shocked audiences with the revelation that the nightmarish world that Charlton Heston was stranded on, had been Earth all along. The box office success of the film (itself loosely based on a 1963 novel by writer Pierre Boulle) lead to a string of successively cheaper sequels, eventually looping back to tell the origin of the Planet of the Apes (through Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes).
In 2011 director Rupert Wyatt rebooted the series with the prequel film Rise of the Planet of the Apes. With a strong script, ground breaking special effects, and a stunning central performance by Andy Serkis, the film became a surprise hit. It told the tale of the rise of the simian leader Caesar (Serkis), as an experimental viral treatment granted apes increased intelligence while being lethal to humanity. In 2014 Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (this time under the helm of director Matt Reeves) followed the fledgling community of apes struggling to establish itself in the fall of human civilisation.
War for the Planet of the Apes takes up two years after the end of Dawn. A military force of humans, backed by ape survivors of the rebel Koba’s (Toby Kebbell) force, are hunting the small community of Caesar’s apes. Realising that a conflict will likely lead to a massive loss of life amongst his people, Caesar seeks to abandon his forest enclave and find more fertile lands. However when the human commander (Woody Harrelson) stages a desperate night time raid on Caesar’s compound, the tragic aftermath leaves Caesar seething for revenge. While his people prepare for an exodus, the ape leader sets out to assassinate the leader of the human forces and finish the war.
This is a profoundly disappointing way to end the series (or at least this phase of it). Technically it is up to the same high standard of the previous two iterations, with audiences never doubting the physicality of the apes for an instant. Similarly the actors are committed to the portrayal of their simian characters, and breathe life into their digital shells. Ultimately it is the script that lets this down. After all the build up of the previous two films, War makes a couple of decisions that run counter to the philosophy of the characters previously established, as well as running against the over arching narrative it was constructing.
On the whole it robs the Caesar of any real agency in this desperate battle for survival between the two species. None of the decisions he has made, none of the plans the apes have formed in the previous films, have any real consequence. They are destinies puppets, and you feel everything is being rail-roaded to the end point. Which in this case is paradoxically the beginning – the original set-up to the 1968 Planet of the Apes.
Not that there is any surprise with that. The Icarus space mission (which strands Charlton Heston on The Planet of the Apes) is seen taking off in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). War also references Planet heavily in its visuals, hearkening back to many moments in that film and revisiting a few original filming locations. It even has a couple of names that are familiar to fans of the first series, that may signal plans for a direct remake of Planet of the Apes (although problematically shortening the time frame that Icarus is away to mere decades rather than centuries). There’s nothing wrong with looping back to the original. It’s just that if you are telling that tale, then make it about grand battles of wit and will, as well as tragic failings. The apes should be creators of their history, rather than mere witnesses. Here it seems like an inevitable consequence of nature, with no reason to spend two and a half hours for it to play out. Just throwing in some messianic moments or Moses imagery for Caesar, doesn’t cut it.
There are moments though when you see flashes of what could have been. Serkis is excellent as he wrestles with the darker angels of his nature, as Caesar struggles to avoid the same hate which destroyed his comrade-in-arms Koba in the previous film. If the script had leaned heavier into this aspect of the character, if it had actually had any effect in his decisions and pay-off in the final consequence, then this really could have been something. Here however it seems merely an afterthought, having little bearing on Caesar’s actions.
Pitted against him, as leader of the human forces, is the normally solid Harrelson. Here he is merely doing a warmed over imitation of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now (1979). It constrains Harrelson, never really giving him room to develop his character, and to provide the conflict of leaders and ideologies that this film really rest upon.
Consequently, despite a fair number of positive points War for the Planet for the Apes fails to deliver on previous outings. Not just a step down in quality for the series, but not even the best monkey movie / Vietnam war allegory we’ve seen this year.