If you liked the grit and arc of this modern reboot, then you won’t be disappointed with how this last in the late aughts trilogy closes off what began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011 and continued with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014.
Like those two installments, this one is also almost entirely carried on the shoulders of the extremely talented Andy Serkis, playing the ape leader Caesar with as much aplomb and gravitas as if he were playing the Roman emperor Julius.
It’s full of quandaries that highlight the moral and philosophical distance between the pure albeit animal savagery of apes and the brutal, merciless ferocity that passes for an allegedly much more evolved society of people. Where does ape end and man begin?
There’s a scene where Caesar orders that captive human soldiers be let go after a particularly harrowing battle. “The Colonel will see we are not savages,” he tells his third in command, a consiglieri-type orangutan, after said orangutan asks the wisdom of releasing potential returnees to the war.
Such hopes for a live-and-let-live truce are futile, of course, when the ruthless monkey-hunting villain is played by Woody Harrelson. And what an exemplary bad guy Harrelson as Colonel McCullough (or just “The Colonel”) makes, doing his damn best version of Marlon Brando echoing Colonel Kurtz channeling a Joseph Conrad character.
Yet this echo of an echo comes full circle and this actorly ouroboros is magnificent and eerily apt in a movie whose heroes are CGI apes—both caricaturish and, in light of our own strongmen leading the world’s superpowers, very terribly close to home. As the leader of the AlphaOmega military faction, The Colonel thinks that all the world’s problems and humanity’s current predicament were caused by monkeys. Every problem is an ape problem and homo sapiens better recognize that the simian solution is a kill ‘em all one.
When the movie opens, it’s been two years since the events of Dawn. When the embattled colonists led by Gary Oldman sent out a distress call for help, a military outpost north of San Francisco at Joint Base Lewis-McChord sent down a force led by this decorated Special Forces Colonel.
Things have escalated quickly, in this time where the Simian Flu virus brought humanity to the brink of extinction, gave way to a species of intelligent apes, and where humanity has been scrabbling in the ashes of their ruined world.
As the fighting intensified, Caesar and the remaining ape community retreated to the woods and the Colonel’s AlphaOmega forces pursued. Both continued to fight a protracted guerilla war through the forest badlands. During those two years, the Colonel and his soldiers have been searching in vain for Caesar and his hidden ape base, rumored to be deep in the woods.
With a novelistic approach and a running time of 140 minutes to match, War drags and falters quite a few times. There are two major instances of info dump that saw the screenwriters sloppily needing to use big blocks of text to establish events. It also has a propensity to drag through long-winded scenes that would’ve been better left for an alternate version or on a special features DVD cut; picking up the pace should’ve been the order of the day.
None of these are enough to ruin the ambition or bragging rights of the mind-blowing accomplishment of this trifecta’s finale. Even the entirely predictable, and yet emotively logical, ending couldn’t overshadow what Serkis and his co-actors, in collaboration with CGI and a common commitment to epic moviemaking, have achieved for this modern allegory of the ape ascendant.
This movie, make no mistake, is strongly character driven. Sure there are layers, and you couldn’t go a few minutes without reference to Nazi concentration camps, Heart of Darkness, Biblical allusions, the casual bigotry made resonant by current events, and a very obtuse homage to Apocalypse Now. But you could shoot an arrow through this thing’s plot and still come out the other side in a mostly linear, and nearly entirely predictable, arc.
It’s the intimate moments between apes and humans and the little surprising interactions, both brutal and tender, that prevent this thing from sliding into the realm of the bathetic. Credit director Matt Reeves for knowing the limits of this genre and creating the apt noirish, wasteland atmosphere that now is almost spookily relevant.
The craft and dedication needed to act in motion capture is a new benchmark for filmmaking and performance. For the mo-capped actors, this goes way beyond pantomine, into the deep recesses of theatricality that strives to keep subtlety in the fore.
Reprising their roles are Karin Konoval (as Maurice, an intellectual Bornean orangutan) and Terry Notary (as Rocket, Caesar’s lieutenant). Joining the ensemble as new standouts are Michael Adamthwaite as the selfless Luca (a Western lowland gorilla); Amiah Miller as Nova, a war orphan whose state of speechlessness is both mystery and eventual key to the riddle of the Simian Flu; and Steve Zahn as Bad Ape, an oddly articulate monkey who once lived in the Sierra Safari Zoo.
While gorgeous child Miller provides an opportunity for the apes to show their humane, compassionate dimension it’s really Zahn’s performance as the abused and slightly unhinged (because of said, sustained abuse at the hands of his zookeepers) chimpanzee that gives this movie its dose of humor and acknowledgement of meta crazy: we’re watching a compelling movie acted in by apes!
Zahn’s Bad Ape steals the scenes quite a few times, too. Props to Zahn for turning in a character that is both darkly comic and absurdly, disturbingly relatable. We’ve all been Bad Ape at some point in our lives. Or wished we weren’t.
Beneath the gratuitous, chest-thumping joy of seeing full on combat between humans and apes, monkeys galloping on horseback, and treks through beautiful post-apocalypse landscape is a commentary on war, bigotry, and ecological change that just might be the whisper of prophecy.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES opens July 12 in Metro Manila.
All photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox.