War for the Planet of the Apes is ‘a superlative cap on a genre trilogy with qualities far above its station’ says MacDara Conroy
How many movie series improve over time, from film to film? There are plenty of canonical references for sequels that better their predecessors (The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back) but their third instalments, if they even get that far, usually mark a significant drop-off in quality. Longer-running genre franchises — your Friday the 13ths and Nightmares on Elm Street — may save their best for later in their runs, yet the path to get there will be fairly uneven. You can count the original Planet of the Apes movies in that number, too.
That’s what makes the current POTA series stand out all the more. The first, Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, almost single-handedly erased memories of Tim Burton’s ill-judged reboot a decade before with a contemporary origin story, borrowed in part from Pierre Boulle’s source novel but playing on very modern fears over animal welfare and scientific hubris. It’s also marked by a sympathetic but edgy performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar, who leads a preternaturally intelligent band of primates. He is the film’s righteous hero, but you’d never want to cross him.
Matt Reeves took the director’s chair from Rupert Wyatt for 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which skips ahead a few years and transplants the story to the woods north of San Francisco, where Caesar and his tribe make a shaky detente with a band of humans in the city over access to a hydroelectric power plant. Shades of grey abound, though the film does slip into paint-by-numbers mode when a dastardly villain is required, while its battle scenes are blandly staged. Nevertheless, it was an improvement on its predecessor, showing a commitment to grow and take the story somewhere bigger and bolder.
Reeves is back at the helm for War for the Planet of the Apes, which picks up where the last film left off: the heralded human army has come, and the struggle has become not a fight for resources, but a crusade for civilisation. Rising tensions break after a sneak attack on the apes’ forest stronghold forces an exodus to a safer home, and makes Caesar swear a very personal vendetta against the humans’ commander, Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson). There are fewer shades of grey here, with the battle lines so starkly drawn. There is no questions as to whose side the viewer should be on.
Those expecting the ‘war’ the title advertises will have to wait, however. War in this film is manifest much more as a pervasive atmosphere rather than in flash-bang combat, which is surprisingly kept to a minimum. It’s war as experienced by its victims, displaced from their homes or rounded up in concentration camps.
For the most part, War for the Planet of the Apes is an odyssey, echoing the epic treks of the Western era though very much an inversion of Western tropes, with the white man squarely in the enemy’s camp. One can even read Saving Private Ryan as the live fire recedes but the carnage reverberates, with a broken Caesar leading a shell-shocked posse — faithful advisor Maurice, brother-in-arms Rocket and brawny protector Luca — not to the apes’ promised land, but his Armageddon.
Along the way they make a couple of additions to their party. First is a young girl (Amiah Miller) rendered mute by what’s apparently a mutation of the simian flu virus that brought humanity to its knees between the first and second films. That this girl is white and blonde smacks of concession to US mainstream sympathies. She’s also less integral to proceedings than the posters and trailers would have you believe.
The other is Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a chimpanzee holed up in an abandoned ski resort after escaping from his zoo — a fact that gives Caesar and Maurice hope that there are more like them in the world. Bad Ape is a curious prospect, walking a fine line between mild comic relief amid the weighty themes, and being a Minions-style pop culture icon in the making that threatens to detract from a measured, adult film with his tomfoolery. War leans to the former, though it’s a closely run thing; expect Bad Ape merch to flood your local comic con regardless.
No, the big takeaway from War must not be its cutesy, bumbling sidekick, or any notion of apes being ‘civilised’ by a blonde white girl, but how much Matt Reeves has improved as a director (and writer) since Dawn. This is the work of an entirely different filmmaker, brimming with artful and evocative shot compositions, whether planting seeds of doubt in faces partly obscured, or making no bones about intentions with stark expressionist flourishes.
Perhaps realising that action is not his strong suit, Reeves concentrates on what’s going on in hearts and minds amid the crossfire. Coppola is the touchpoint; Apocalypse Now is the influence (avowedly so, going by the graffiti glimpsed in later scenes). And Harrelson’s corrupted colonel is the Kurtz figure, a futile warmonger with the impossible logic of an internet troll, whose descent into madness is soundtracked by Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’.
But it’s not Heart of Darkness, to which this year’s ham-fisted and mean-spirited Kong: Skull Island tried so hard to allude via wholesale plot theft. It’s a nod to Apocalypse Now’s eschatological rather than post-colonial themes, which gels seamlessly with the conflict that is this series’ very own. And it’s not all dour philosophical pondering of man’s inhumanity to ape, as a Great Escape-esque subplot adds a satisfying sense of derring-do.
You probably weren’t expecting such a successful marriage of cinematic sensibilities with the demands of summer blockbuster audiences. But that’s War for the Planet of the Apes, a superlative cap on a genre trilogy with qualities far above its station. It’s no monkey business.
War for the Planet of the Apes opens nationwide on Tuesday July 11th
Also published on Medium.