Movie Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes”

At one point during “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the audience watches as a Colonel (Woody Harrelson) and his troops listen to a poor recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The troops go from standing in formation over to their ape prisoners, and abuse this group of others, a group whom they are forcing to build a wall to keep out bad guys. As for the Colonel, he’s a man mentally ill-equipped for the leadership role in which he finds himself as the world falls down around him. He longs for a world that no longer exists, if it ever did in the first place, and—in a show of obvious insanity—believes that a wall is going to protect him from the outside world.

Now, a movie like “War for the Planet of the Apes” takes an awfully long time to get off the ground (there were set visits for members of the press in January 2016), but if the Colonel, his troops, and their actions don’t remind you of what’s going on in our nation you need to look again. It isn’t a perfect analogy, but it’s one that ought not be denied.

The Colonel and his troops, the bad guys for this third in the new series of “Apes” films) are doomed from the moment we first meet them. This is not because they necessarily have to lose to Caesar (Andy Serkis) in “War” (and please don’t read this as me telling you what happens, I’m not discussing any plot with this statement, but rather making a broader point), but because they exist on the wrong the side of history. They want something that can never be and are destined to be destroyed because they are unable to accept change.

It is a smart (albeit perhaps unintentional) look at our world today. It is also not truly the main thrust of this movie, a movie which sets its sights on a much smaller story with far fewer implications for anyone save perhaps the main character.

Welcome to Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes,” a movie that is both astounding and disappointing. This is a film which is self-indulgently long, utterly beautiful to look at, full of wholly unbelievable coincidences. It is a film with apes so human it hurts, and humans so dumb it’s painful.

The first thing one notices watching this latest “Apes” movie is just how great the apes look. Caesar and his clan are incredibly realistic. It is instantly striking and then, sometimes, Caesar’s mouth and lips don’t look quite right in close-up as he talks. It is so close, but wrong. And, that may be the best single statement for the movie as a whole – it’s so close, but wrong.

Looking at this new trilogy of “Apes” films, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” gives us the beginning of the whole super-intelligent ape thing. It tells a small story which clearly sets things on this planet moving in an entirely different direction. Small story, yes, but big implications. The opening of “Dawn,” with its discussion of the Simian Flu wiping out much of the human race is the only big moment in that film, the rest of it is a small story about a single band of humanity trying to work out life with a single group of super-intelligent apes (are there more super-intelligent apes? Who knows! What does the rest of humanity really look like at that point? Who knows! How much of the world is still standing? Who knows!).

Now, there’s “War” which again goes for a small story – Caesar and his group run into a single, and quite definitively rogue, squad of troops, and have to figure out how to deal with this issue. I would say that it’s a small issue, except that for Caesar and his band it is about their ability to survive.

The movie does answer one of the above questions that “Dawn” ignores – there are certainly super-intelligent apes elsewhere on the planet, Steve Zahn plays an ape in “War” who can speak and is not from Caesar’s tribe. The consequence of this is that the movie not be a big story in the course of the history of this fictional Earth (it’s called “War for the Planet of the Apes” and so there’s a definite implication that it’s important, but not an implication borne out in the film). The last two films’ dogged unwillingness to give a big picture (past the prologue in “Dawn”), make it exceptionally difficult to judge.

Once one gets past the whiz-bang awesomeness of how Reeves and Serkis (and a lot of other folks) are able to bring these apes to life and imbue them with emotions, the franchise’s desire to stick to these small stories stands out and is frustrating. Having watched the last two movies, I don’t know that this world is any closer to a planet ruled by the apes than it was if not at the end of the first film, then at the end of the prologue of the second.

Beyond that, they don’t even tell these small stories brilliantly. There are no fewer than three or four major coincidences in “War.” These take place with the timing of events, people randomly bumping into each other, and even the physical structure of the Colonel’s base. They defy (any explained) logic. They defy credibility. And yet, it feels as though we are asked to simply look past them because of the emotions the team can explore with motion capture apes.

It almost works perfectly. That last bit is certainly amazing and makes up for a whole lot of story shortcomings. Reeves and company do a truly great job exploring emotions with the apes. Caesar’s journey from the first film through this one has been one worth going on and “War” is a very good movie, but that makes its obvious flaws that much more inexcusable.

Rereading all of the above, it sounds like I come down much more negative than positive, but if you look at the score below, you will see that I don’t mean for that to be the case. I am amazed by these three films. I am awed by what they accomplish. I just think that such awe is not enough to blind one to their obvious shortcomings.

Of course, maybe my complaints are a symptom of my own inability to accept the world around me. Maybe I’m more the Colonel than I choose to admit. Maybe my words are the wall I’m building around my own distress. Maybe my attempts to convince myself that things were once better than this, that storytelling was once better than this, are nothing more than a symptom of this illness.

Maybe we all suffer from the same problem.



photo credit: 20th Century Fox

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