The apes have decided to RISE again after it DAWNed on them that it was their Earth all along. Puns like that grace the opening credits of the otherwise über-serious WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, nominally the final chapter in the rebooted trilogy. Here is a series that is determined to find intertextual links with its own history, even if its at the expense of tonal consistency.
Dropping us into the middle of a war, Caesar (Andy Serkis) tries to lead his tribe of apes in peaceful ways. His encampment is set upon by the radical paramilitary organisation Alpha Omega (ΑΩ), led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), and group begins their long walk to freedom. Encountering a young girl (Amiah Miller), evidence of a virus that is devolving humans, Caesar’s single-minded thirst for vengeance threatens to unravel them all.
On a purely effects-driven level, WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES surpasses all other effects movies. Forget singular CG characters, here there’s whole societies of realistic motion captured apes. Bravely choosing to play out long stretches of film where nary a human character is seen, dialogue becomes limited to subtitled sign language. It’s a completely immersive way of transporting viewers back into this world, and it is never less than all-encompassing.
Mark Bomback and director Matt Reeves’ script plays with a lot of big themes. Continuing the biblical narrative of Caesar as a messiah figure, he leads a literal exodus of his people into the great beyond. The Colonel, who talks of sacrificing his own son to save humanity, sees the battle for the planet of the apes as a “holy war.” The fanaticism and symbolism of ΑΩ will be familiar to fans of the original film series, but religious extremism is not just in the realm of science fiction in 2017.
Indeed, it’s hard to avoid the film’s politics. Following the thread of Kong: Skull Island, this is the second monkey-related film to directly ape Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now this year, even going so far as to splash Ape-ocalypse Now! on-screen via some well-placed graffiti. Here it’s via the Kurtz-like Colonel, complete with shaved head and propensity for dramatic speeches. If there was any chance of avoiding parallels to ‘otherness,’ modern slavery and immigration in the subtext, Harrelson’s Colonel makes it tangible with the line “We need that wall!”
Which is where WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES gets a little bogged down. Coupled with a slower middle act, before taking a leaf out of The Great Escape and changing genres rapidly, Reeves’ film is often at war with itself. Radical tonal shifts, such as the inclusion of the (admittedly adorable) comedy relief chimp Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), and an overwhelming need to be self-referential, keeps this from being truly great. Nevertheless, it’s an ambitious technical achievement that operates in the realms of pure cinema.