“War for the Planet of the Apes” thankfully isn’t just another reheated, inarticulate summertime sequel. This is movie isn’t exactly tons of fun, but it is a sci-fi project that’s culturally relevant, philosophical, and considerably dark. The third chapter in the popular rebooted franchise is also thoughtful and smart, with some mindless fiery action hero explosion fun thrown in to keep audiences engaged.
This time around we find Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his charges hiding out in the forest to escape the war that’s raging with the humans. After a ruthless, psychotic Colonel (Woody Harrelson) discovers the hidden camp and wipes out many of the apes, Caesar vows to seek revenge. What he discovers when they finally meet face to face is a death camp for his species, and a struggle for the future of the planet ensues.
Summer blockbuster audiences are going to be sorely disappointed if they are expecting a literal “war.” This isn’t a nonstop battle movie with apes and humans going at it, it’s more of a psychological drama that’s excessively preachy and heavy-handed. There are far from subtle allusions to the inhumanity of slavery, the Bible, and the Holocaust, and the story crosses the fine line between homage and rip-off when it comes to both “The Great Escape” and “Apocalypse Now.” There isn’t much originality in the story — the filmmakers saved that for the special effects.
The film is a visual feast that relishes in being a true show-off (as it has every right to do, because this movie looks incredible). The sophistication of CGI in this film is in a class of its own. The apes look and feel real, to the point where you’ll never begin to take pause and question why you’re rooting for them to emerge victorious over your own species.
Aside from the breathtaking special effects, this one isn’t exactly a complete winner. Harrelson’s mentally unhinged Colonel is a great character that doesn’t have nearly enough screen time. Then there’s the strange Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a sort of comic relief character to soften the monkey torture going on in the next scene. We’re introduced to both Cornelius and Nova (Amiah Miller), which will delight fans of the retro Charlton Heston movies, but neither has much to do here.
Most disappointing is that the more thoughtful aspects of the film are all but wiped away with the end escape sequence, which is filled with dumbed down, unsubtle, Michael Bay-esque show-off shots like one of a giant grenade-strapped ape escaping from his one-dimensional evil human captors via a burning American flag with huge explosions all around. Yes, this really happens. Not joking.
If mainstream audiences aren’t already alienated by the gradual pacing and profound nature of the poignant narrative, those who aren’t too keen on reading subtitles will also hate this one because it’s captioned almost as much as a foreign film. The apes spend the majority of the film speaking through sign language. I feel this is worth mentioning because I remember years ago when half of my audience got up and walked out of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” because they didn’t want to have to read during the movie. (To that I say: get over yourselves).
While “War for the Planet of the Apes” might not be the traditional mindless fun blockbuster you’re expecting, it’s worth seeing for the visual effects alone. I’ve never seen a movie that looks quite like this, and the technical achievements are truly astounding.
Finally, a rebooted POTA movie with an actual beginning, middle, and end. Unlike the other two films in this new take on the franchise, “War for the Planet of the Apes” doesn’t focus solely on wowing us with computer-generated ape effects and instead works on the fundamentals — like telling a compelling story. I found myself quite engrossed in the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the conflict between his group of apes and a small human fighting force led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson).
Moreover, this was the first of these films that felt true to the original POTA series. As a fan of those movies, I very much enjoyed some of the backstory-filling references, which helped explain how this group of apes led to the ones Taylor met up with in the first film.
These motion-capture apes are (for the most part) convincingly lifelike and their motivations sympathetic. While there are some moments that appeal to the lowest common denominator — mostly those featuring Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who serves as the comic relief — for an effects-laden summer blockbuster, “War for the Planet of the Apes” was pretty darned enjoyable.