Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” – An uneven, but fitting end

Poster for "War for the Planet of the Apes"

Caesar (Andy Serkis, voice and mo-cap) really is an epic, tragic hero, and his odyssey over the course of the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy is a grand spectacle to behold. It owes much of this to Weta Digital’s stunning visual effects and creature work on Caesar and his ape companions (Maurice the Orangutan is a particular masterpiece, and looked as good in 2011 as now). At the time, I said of director Rupert Wyatt‘s series reboot that “it’s easy to overlook just how smart and well-executed this film is, given that Rise of the Planet of the Apes nearly drowns in its rush to saturate itself with big-budget blockbuster stupidity”. The sequels from director Matt Reeves have only heightened these competing impulses – toward deeper and grander themes of the nature of war amid the collapse and clash of a pair of sapient civilizations, and increasingly ridiculous levels of well-rendered, low-stakes blockbuster twaddle. In this way, War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting end to this trilogy, because not only does it deliver a satisfying ending to the film’s only continuous group of characters – apes all – but because it doubles down on many of the series’ most facile impulses. Its homages to classic cinema perform a tenuous and inconsistent tonal dance as the film tries to have its cake and eat it too – delivering a sincere, satisfying, and at times, devastating emotional journey for Serkis and his team to digitally render before us, but also allowing his marvelous creature to become an over-the-top action hero who is repeatedly bailed out of serious trouble by happenstance, antagonist stupidity, and script-demanded good fortune.

I’m being harder on this film than I expected, but I actually had a great deal of fun watching it. After Rise showcased the accidental fall of mankind, Dawn delivered an astonishing allegory on the fragility of peace, showing how bad actors on either side can topple the equilibrium with far greater ease than those who are trying desperately to preserve it. The second film had a clear-eyed message: it didn’t have to be this way. If humanity’s remnants had simply listened to the better angels of their nature – and if its intelligent ape children had done the same – then they might have found a way to coexist on a planet that would be forever changed. It was a real achievement that the series ever made this peace seem possible (even knowing that a blockbuster’s second chapter seldom ends happily), and as this film returns years later into full-fledged conflict, that fleeting memory makes it that much harder to bear. Human soldiers creep through the jungle, ambushing apes and getting ambushed in return, with dozens dead on either side. The film revels in that tragedy, but it never feels exploitative. And it comes as no surprise when the ruthless human Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) is first introduced as a staticky voice on a radio, first telling a lone surviving grunt that he is now in command, and then – when his imminent death becomes clear – ferociously ordering him to “kill as many of them as you can”.

Woody Harrelson in "War for the Planet of the Apes"

The most obvious of the film’s influences is Apocalypse Now (an ape-pun version of this is literally spray-painted on a tunnel wall), but the strongest component of that homage is certainly Harrelson, who delivers a solid performance on fairly limited dialogue and screen presence. The Colonel is introduced as a sort of nightmare-creature – a nemesis who spits on your attempts at peace or compromise, and sneaks up in the dead of night to butcher you in your bed. And when his truer nature is revealed later as something a bit more banal in the fanatical fog of war, the distinction hardly matters. The film’s handling of the Colonel is masterful, because we first meet him from the apes’ perspective as a figure whose existence is so loathsome that it will rip Caesar away from his beleaguered tribe of apes on a suicidal vendetta. Strong, stoic Caesar, whom we’ve witnessed learning about the goodness and ills of human and apekind alike, is shattered by the basest of human desires – to vanquish one’s enemy at any cost. And what a grand journey it becomes. It is perhaps somewhere in Weta Digital’s contract that every one of their films must include a LOTR-esque epic journey, and this film certainly delivers it, as Caesar and his team of besties tear off on horseback. You know these beats already. Caesar doesn’t want them to come, but Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and a strange newcomer known as Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) simply can’t let him undertake this journey alone. Composer Michael Giacchino has grown since his Lost days, with the film’s boisterous themes trumpeting forth like a classic adventure film – Howard Shore meets Sergio Leone. The lush, cavernous cinematography as the troupe distantly (but not too distantly) trails the Colonel’s army will make you gawk at the glory of this cinematic war odyssey, but also ponder why no one in the baggage train bothered to glance back with a clean pair of binoculars. And the less said about the film’s haphazard use of floodlights, the better. War is a gorgeous and eminently watchable film that lets its characters get away with any reckless, ill-conceived action until the moment the script decrees that it’s time for the next conflict – and even then, the sheer lucky spectacle of it all makes those bad choices seem almost correct.

In a sense, the film is predictable, insofar as its genre influences are clear. If there’s an enemy camp, it will be invaded. If there are prisoners, they will escape. All of this will end in blood and fire and death, perhaps right where the giant fuel tanks are discourteously stored. But from a broader perspective, the film manages to maintain a foreboding sense of mystery about the overall tides of the war, as well as the state of the larger world and either species. The series is called Planet of the Apes, and yet it feels suspiciously like the death spiral of all life on Earth, and that is an unyielding source of tension as the series goes on. In much the same way as Game of Thrones, I found myself screaming silently at these characters: Stop this. Stop it now, while some of you are still alive. But that’s perhaps where the film maintains a sheen of optimism, because its most persistent and surprising message is about the tenacity of our nobler instincts. I say “our”, but I’m including the apes in this assessment. The film repeatedly argues, in a manner that is true to these characters, that the overriding impulse of any intelligent being is toward acts of grace, mercy, and compassion. The film hammers this sanguine point repeatedly through character beats, then drives the entire thing off a cliff for a final action sequence that, if I’m being honest, I had quite a bit of fun watching, but found rather narratively unsatisfying. The clashing CGI armies look as good as ever, and yet feel far more anonymous and inconsequential than ever before. War for the Planet of the Apes freely depicts the brutal and unfair horror of death in warfare, but is also happy to showcase death as an admirable, peaceful thing that happens on a mountaintop before sunset.

Still from "War for the Planet of the Apes"

The result is a mixed bag. Caesar makes some atrocious choices in War for the Planet of the Apes, and the film, in a sense, lets him off the hook by presenting a third act that felt utterly devoid of conventional stakes and still allowed him to be a triumphant hero. And yet, I can’t call the film a failure for it, because it still feels like as deep and consequential an exploration of warfare as this series has ever delivered. Perhaps the best avatar for this film is Zahn’s character of “Bad Ape”. He is almost a circus clown version of Koba, the scarred, bitter ape who gleefully started this war in the second film. Bad Ape was mistreated by humans in his former life, but retains the name they used to shout at him, as well as his status as a bitter, lonely, broken-down coward. He is nominally a comic-relief character, and yet I never once stopped feeling compassion for him. And that compassion felt vindicated through his actions by the film’s end. Bad Ape – in addition to being one of the finest CGI creations since Maurice – embodies a deep, abiding sadness. That’s what I felt at the end of this film. That might’ve been exactly what it wanted.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

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