As a child of the 1970s, growing up with the TV shows, lunch boxes and the movies on regular rotation on weekend daytime television, I have always viewed the Planet of the Apes as Pop Art, a detached or at least medium cool way of processing the turbulence of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and nuclear proliferation. With War for the Planet of the Apes, the outrageously ambitious concluding chapter in the latest trilogy in a franchise that was rebooted with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the phenomenon officially takes over every single wing of the museum. There are vast Turner-esque landscapes, their lush abandoned flora dotted with gorillas on horseback and rendered in epic 65 millimeter digital that fills every inch of the giant screen. There are hints of the Dutch masters with the introductory close up of a mute little girl (no doubt a distant cousin to Aliens‘ Newt), who is taken in by the apes after they kill her father in self-defense. And there is the punk rock agitprop of a burning American flag— already defaced by Woody Harrelson’s twisted Colonel—used as a means of escape by the series hero, the chimpanzee Caesar, played by the remarkable Andy Serkis.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES: ★★★1/2
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Mark Bomback and Reeves, based on characters created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn
Running time: 140 mins.
The film is also an amalgam of just about every epic film genre from more than a century of cinema. You will see elements of the Biblical films of Cecil B. DeMille as Caesar moves from being a Moses figure to a Messianic one, strung up on a X by one of the Colonel’s Donkeys, a pejorative term to describe the gorillas who have betrayed their kind to help the humans. The movie is also profoundly indebted to the cinema of David Lean, specifically The Bridge on the River Kwai, as the apes are gathered into work camps to build a massive wall at the insistence of their human captors. (“Why are they building the wall?” asks Caesar, a inquiry that renders him more qualified to discuss current events than many of the talking heads gathered on cable news panels.) As Caesar becomes obsessed with taking out the Colonel after a deadly strike against the apes’ camp, the film becomes a riff on classic Clint Eastwood revenge westerns like The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven. And it generously quotes from the Vietnam films of the 70s and 80s, most profoundly Apocalypse Now, with Caesar taking on the Martin Sheen role, his river the California High Sierras as played by British Columbia. (The Canadian province’s surf and ski appeal is on such vibrant display that this post-apocalypse movie could actually boost its tourism appeal.)
This many grand artistic and cinematic influences crammed into a single movie would typically prove disastrous, but director Matt Reeves, returning after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, has stretched his canvas wide enough to contain it all. But the reason the movie works so spectacularly well is simple: its beautiful paintings and breathtaking milieus all have apes in them. It is a subversively thrilling treat to see the masterworks of art and cinema given the monkey business so expertly, the process enriching rather than lessening the stature of those works. This is a morally and artistically complex film, one that expertly melds high and low, significant and silly. A profoundly optimistic take on the end of the world (at least as we know it), this is a film that says important things about war, the environment, and the nature of humanity. At the same time, the most pressing point proffered by War for the Planet of the Apes may just be that it’s incredibly cool to watch apes ride horses on the beach, especially when they have rifles strapped to their backs.
And oh what apes they are. We really know these characters by now and so do the computer artists who transform motion capture performances into the curious creatures we see on screen. To call them realistic is to miss the point, or at least part of the fun. They’re something more interesting than that: They’re movie magic. Karin Konoval’s soulful and discerning Maurice is as compelling a cinematic consigliere as Tom Hagen. The primary new character—marking an evolution in both ape species and performance capture—is Bad Ape, a chronically abused former zoo chimp whose name was given to him by his onetime captors. He’s played by Steve Zahn, moviedom’s ultimate utility infielder, in a performance that perfectly mirrors the sense of wonder and trepidation felt by many in the audience. Zahn also brings a levity missing from the previous installment in the series.
But the movie, and perhaps the summer, belongs to Serkis. The master of MoCap keeps Caesar grounded in his familiar empathetic and family-first mode, even when overtaken with bloodlust for The Colonel, who represents the worst of a human race in its final throes. Humans have always been these films’ Achilles heel, and that remains true here with Harrelson and the soldiers that bellow their allegiance to him. Not only have we seen the Natural Born Killers star do this sort of thing before, the movie stops dead so he can deliver a 7-page monologue meant to explain his abject cruelty. It’s as if someone hijacked the sci-fi horse opera so they could stage a one-man show called Kurtz!
War for the Planet of the Apes marks the apex of what has been a bludgeoning season of spectacle cinema. We have endured a great many explosions to get to this point, and you will be forced to put up with some troublingly violent ones here. (That this movie gets a PG-13 in the same summer that saw The Big Sick branded R should prove the final nail in the coffin of the MPAA’s rating system.) So it feels both well earned and affirming that the rote Hollywood necessity—the eardrum-smashing summer franchise tent pole—has been imbued with ideas and emotions equal to its box office ambitions. Moreover, when the apes let loose a rain of spears on the advancing soldiers, it totally kicks ass.