WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
2017 was a pretty great year for movies about primates other than people.
Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves
With Andy Serkis (Caesar), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Terry Notary (Rocket), Michael Adamthwaite (Luca), Amiah Miller (Nova), Steve Zahn (Bad Ape), Toby Kebbell (Koba), Ty Olsson (Red Donkey), and Woody Harrelson (The Colonel)
Spoiler alert: moderate
It has sequel cred, you have to give it that: War For the Planet of the Apes doubles right the fuck down the ethos that defined Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and there's no mistaking it for anything but the follow-up to one of the glummest, most stripped-down blockbusters ever made.
Meanwhile, if Dawn did everything in its power to flatten the biology and behavior of its mutated apes into precious little more than a confederation of remarkably-hairy human beings, then War finishes the job—though of course this is only in keeping with the Apes franchise as a whole, which has almost never used its non-human apes as anything except reflections of various aspects of human society, meaning the solitary film in the nine-film Apes franchise that ever even slightly cared about its apes as apes was the first film in the prequel trilogy which War concludes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This is also the biggest reason why Rise remains the best film out of that trilogy, and, indeed, out of all nine; whereas Dawn, which abandoned all the most radical aspects of Rise—its critique of human supremacy in specific rather than abstract terms; its willingness to make its non-human characters a little alien; above all, its near-total commitment to their silence—remains a slight disappointment. This is particularly the case when neither Dawn nor War, though more invested in its non-human characters' essential humanity than is already usual for even this franchise, ever bothers pointing out, just once, that "a planet of apes" is, well, the planet we've already got.
As of War, though, it's fair enough to say that we really do need a term for the chimps, gorillas, and orangutans which excludes the human members of their family, as Dawn's parable of broken trust and misunderstood intentions on both sides has now given way (much like our own planet of apes, I suppose) to an existential struggle between good guys and bad guys—yet, somehow, War still feels a little more complex in the telling, despite wallowing just as hard in this franchise's now-customary elemental featurelessness. Or maybe War's just that much more entertaining. It does always help.
War opens with our apes and humans locked in combat, and it goes badly for the apes until the apes' leader Caesar arrives to beat back the invaders. We learn that, in the aftermath of Dawn, the humans have remilitarized Northern California, and that the soldiers there have fallen under the spell of a certain "Colonel," whose word is law, if not holy writ. In our post-apocalyptic milieu, this isn't exactly surprising; but the existence of traitorous apes fighting on humanity's side might come as a mild shock.
With the legendary ape leader's continued existence revealed, it's not long before the Colonel makes a personal call upon the apes' fortress, in a bid to assassinate his enemy's king. He succeeds, however, only in killing Caesar's mate and son. The irony was that the apes were already in the process of picking up and moving east, to escape the resurgent human presence. And this they do—except now without their leader. Caesar thirsts for vengeance, of course, and he treks across a Northern California winter to get it, followed by his most faithful retainers, Maurice the orangutan, Rocket the chimp, and Luca the gorilla (the latter of whom this movie clearly thinks was established as a character in previous installments, although this is not completely true). On the way, they pick up an orphaned human girl (that, incidentally, they made into an orphan, for War is routinely quite brutal in its specifics), as well as a guide to the human base, a half-mad chimp loner known only by the unlikely sobriquet of "Bad Ape." They arrive at the Colonel's base, just in time to find out he's already gone and captured the whole of Caesar's people; and here, as they say, their troubles begin.
I kind of knew that War was going to wind up at least moderately loveable, just from its opening gambit. That would be a trio of intertitles, apparently written in direct response to the endemic and trifling criticism that the arbitrary names of these new Apes movies tend to describe other films in the trilogy even better, which is funny, since War makes it a genuine tradition. (War is a better title for Dawn; Dawn is a better title for Rise; and Rise, of course, is a better title for War; and one of the reasons this might be the last one is that they've run out of all the good nouns.) In any event, this is the last thing that's even mildly amusing until almost an hour later, when Bad Ape shows up, and makes us laugh by being the most pitiful and deranged inhabitant of the end of the world. Perhaps I already mentioned this thing was glum?
It is loveable, nevertheless. Even as our apes talk with abandon (the shifts between the apes' rarer-and-rarer native sign language and their increasingly-dominant English speech comes and goes as if by whim, this time around), and even as you wonder what difference it makes that we're not actually looking at human wanderers of the wasteland (other than delivering the technological spectacle that has, you'll agree, always justified these movies, regardless of any other factor whatsoever), the inhuman hominidity of our heroes does do some very, very subtle work in War, which is to render their utterly basic motivations far more interesting than they would be if they were applied to human beings. (For example, there is no way on Earth that the marginal character work they give Luca would play for even a second with a human on the screen—not to spoil things, but he has two whole character beats, and one leads directly into the other in a way that would make you roll your eyes right out of your skull at the cliche of it, if he were human. But, as a gorilla? Hell, it almost works.) I expect that giving us a league of cartoons to cheer for also makes witnessing the bitter end of humanity more palatable, too.
War gets more mileage out of its apes than Dawn ever managed, though, especially by complicating Caesar and giving him an internal conflict this time—personified in the hallucinated phantom of Dawn's external one, Koba, whom Caesar is no longer sure was actually wrong—and this makes for significantly more compelling viewing. As should surprise no one, Andy Serkis, starring in Caesar's CGI suit, is more than up to the challenge of filling in the blanks left by director Matt Reeves and co-screenwriter Mark Bomback's script; Serkis deepens the character-as-written beyond anything that I can imagine even seemed possible on the page. Nor is he alone. War's ape cast is an extraordinary mocap ensemble, though there are standouts even amongst the secondary players: Toby Kebbell, reprising Koba, is somehow even more impressive than he was last time, despite a role that amounts to maybe five whole shots; and Karin Konoval is as good as she ever was as Maurice, which is tremendously good indeed.
And it's worth mentioning that Woody Harrelson gives this trilogy what it's never quite had: a charismatic human lead. Now, I'll defend James Franco, but "charisma" wasn't what his performance as Caesar's human creator was going for. (I will not defend Jason Clarke.) But Harrelson makes an outright excellent villain, even as quickly-sketched, and as reliant upon another famous film colonel, as he undeniably is—like many, my greatest worry going into War was the depths of its referencing. (It isn't that bad, in fact, though the Apes movie with the Kurtz probably should not also have been the Apes movie with the piece of background graffiti that reads "Ape-pocalypse Now"; It's the most disgusting part of a movie that likewise features several crucifixions. Of course, the film's other pop cultural references are too clever by half, but I kind of love 'em for it: "kong," with its cute double meaning; "donkey," for the Colonel's hominid Uncle Toms.) Well, anyway, War has the decency to give its villain motivations that are terrifying in just how rational they sound, given his extreme circumstances—and the even greater decency, to give him a full character with a genuine arc. Not bad for summer fare in this day and age, I have to say.
True, Steve Zahn isn't good enough to keep you from noticing that Dobby the House Elf somehow managed to sneak his way into the apocalypse. But who would be?
War has the unique benefit of not being a crypto-remake of any film in the original quintology, the way Rise was a remake of Conquest, and Dawn was a remake of Battle. Freed to follow its own path wherever it led, War has a great deal of (mostly) stone-faced fun crossing the host of genres Reeves has laid before it: war film; Western; prison break film set inside a war film (that's not, for that matter, afraid to shade into a Holocaust film); war-based action film; and, finally, what it always was, a Bible epic; and I'm sure someone, somewhere, has made the case for War being the screen's best adaptation of Exodus. It covers a lot of genres, then, though its sci-fi setting ties them all together into one unified narrative, almost invisibly. (Almost: I suppose I probably enjoyed the "Western" phase of it the most, simply because it has the most dramatic landscape photography, and War's CG-boosted wintry Northern California looks positively mythic; of course, this part of the film also has the best efforts from Michael Giacchino's percussive, borderline-experimentalist score, and this is saying something, inasmuch as it's awfully close to being the best score Giacchino's ever delivered.)
It is not, unfortunately, perfect, even on its own diminished terms—and those terms are indeed diminished. At the risk of repeating myself, it shares with Dawn a nasty, nasty penchant to underestimate its audience's ability to understand cinema, coming close to breaking its single most allegorically-laden and heartbreakingly-poignant moment with the sound that you think you'd have gotten used to after two whole movies' worth of it, namely talking apes laboring over their portentous dialogue. (It comes about 138 minutes into War's 140 minute runtime, and you'll know that it needs no words at all, the images and the unvocalized sound of a primate's grief certainly being quite sufficient at communicating the unvarnished emotion of the scene.) This is on top of a stacked series of several climaxes that, while each individual vignette is certainly thrilling, does degenerate in much the way that most modern, overlong blockbusters tend to do, whereupon it becomes a slightly-endless exercise in Caesar, running away from a variety of different-colored clouds. I also have something here in my notes about a photorealistic gorilla riding a horse. The gorilla looks awkward. The horse doesn't look nearly awkward enough.
None of this is to overlook the film's undeniable accomplishments, as they are legion, and War serves all its numerous masters well: it is another great showcase for Serkis' special brand of screen acting, as well as a showcase for the technology that allows it (my favorite little thing in the movie might be the way the focal plane interacts with the ape CGI, when Caesar wavers between waking and unconsciousness); in a similar vein, it's a small but notable triumph for Reeves' evolving aesthetic, which has shaded into the most resolute kind of neo-classicism here (on a purely visual level, I'm having trouble thinking of any other summer movie that's been this serene and severe, even reaching back to Jaws); and War's a pretty damn swell prequel, too, which is maybe its biggest surprise. Sure, I have no actual interest in the way that War welds itself to Planet of the Apes, but I'm always happy to admit when a movie does anything deftly, and War does this very deftly.
But more than anything, War For the Planet of the Apes is a breathtaking conclusion to a myth about the mortality of humankind. Even with its unwillingness to grapple hard with what makes the apes different—I guess they're not, and that's a point, though arguably not an interesting one—there's nevertheless something special about any blockbuster series that's managed to stay, three times running, this pessimistic about our species. War's enduring achievement may well be that it was willing to embrace a mood of actual doom—rather than the usual quips-and-'splosions "doom" we've gotten every other summer weekend, going on the past twenty years.