War for the Planet of the Apes
2017, PG-13, 140 min. Directed by Matt Reeves. Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbel, Devyn Dalton, Ty Olson.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 14, 2017
It’s a rare thing for a trilogy to best itself again and again. Even George Miller’s dystopian gearhead Mad Max series stumbled with its third entry, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Of course, 20 years later Mad Max: Fury Road, “in the roar of an engine,” regained everything. Even so, cinematic trifectas are notoriously tricky to pull off. It’s an undeniable pleasure, then, to say that War for the Planet of the Apes is a glorious, action-and-pathos packed capstone to the rebooted Apes franchise. In just under two and a half hours, director Reeves and co-screenwriter Mark Bomback make monkeys of the film’s bellicose, desperate human survivors and compassionate, utterly believable “humans” of the ape society. (That’s not a knock on actual apes, okay?) War does feature a handful of breathtaking battle sequences, but of all three Apes movies, this is the most knowing, relatable, and intensely realized depiction of humanity’s end and the hyper-intelligent chimps, gorillas, and orangutans’ taking over the planet.
Fifteen years on from the events portrayed in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the simian protagonists are still led by Caesar (Serkis). His forested redoubt in the high sierras is enduring hit-and-run attacks from a nearby band of soldiers commanded by mad dreamer the Colonel (Harrelson). When one of the heavily armed human raids results in the death of Caesar’s wife and child, the formerly peace-seeking chimpanzee sets out to avenge their deaths and take as many of the Colonel’s soldiers down as possible. His wise orangutan friend Maurice (Konoval) cautions against it, while second-in-command gorilla Luca (Adamthwaite) knows that his leader will never let the atrocity go. A posse is formed to find the location of the human base and, while traveling there on horseback, they meet up with a frightened chimpanzee, Bad Ape (Zahn). Formerly an abused zoo animal who came to believe the phrase “bad ape” was his actual name, the character provides the otherwise grim film with some light comic relief mixed with melancholy. They also discover a mute human child they name Nova. (Longtime Apes fans will surely get the reference.)
Pared down to its essence, War is equal parts Western and Apocalypse Now – or “ape-pocalypse now” as some briefly seen graffiti puts it. Harrelson’s Colonel is a direct homage to Brando’s Kurtz in the Coppola classic, and the gunslinging ape posse act as a clever variant on the “You shot my pa!” tropes common to the Western genre. In the end, war is hell no matter what species you are.
Don’t bother with the 3-D version of this sci-fi morality tale; it’s not necessary thanks to the inspired motion-capture acting of the simian cast and the richly detailed CGI animation that brings so much life to its non-human heroes. It’s odd, perhaps, to find yourself rooting for the other side of the evolutionary ladder, but Reeves’ movie will have you doing just that. You might even want to bring a hankie to this morality vs. mortality tragic tale of the war to end all wars.