‘War for the Planet of the Apes’

Sci-fi franchise gets super serious – and super good – in the final act of its trilogy

Monkey business
Monkey business

You’d not expect the movie about intelligent, English speaking apes to be as good as Rise of the Planet of the Apes was. And, given that its sequel (Dawn) was good enough for a Summer popcorn picture, it comes as something of a surprise that the third part of this rebooted franchise trilogy ends up being as good as it is.

While aping (ergh, puns) from several sources, it manages to take it self very seriously … with surprising results. The film is one whose premise, and characters, take their plights very seriously. Consequentially, a great deal of merit and worth ends up being found in its seriousness. This is, of course, a silly concept; however, the dilemmas these apes, and people, are faced with are real and potent enough to them. And like the best science fiction, it’s a potent allegory for the times.

There are more than a few nods to Apocalypse Now; from a touch of graffiti in an underground tunnel (‘Ape-ocalypse now,’ it screams, not so subtly), to Woody Harrelson’s wild eyed Kurtz figure emerging from the water clad in camouflage; or shaving his head, and the overarching notion of the decorated soldier having gone rogue, thus becoming the subject of the broader military’s ire for his unsound tactics.

The cues to Schindler’s List (of all things) also don’t go unnoticed, with Harrelson’s Colonel emerging from up on high out on a balcony like Ralph Fiennes’ Goeth, and the majority of the narrative being set in a large, bleak and snow-covered compound, replete with railroad tracks and guard tower search lights. On the surface, by its very nature it seems tasteless, but somehow director Matt Reeves makes it work.

I think that the best, strongest aspects of its place in the sci-fi/pop culture/cinematic canon are found in its several ingenious references to the 1968 original with Charlton Heston: character names, iconography, music cues, plot points. They stand alone without the viewer having needed to see the original (and great) film, but as a fan of that work, the notes Reeves plays are smart and involving.

The film places humanity, once again, as the villains (merging from the hubris of the first film, the sad desperation found in the second, to this third film’s out-and-out darkness and maliciousness); again, this is a strong counter-point to the Heston film – the apes of that one being dogmatic creationists who treated humans like cattle and had an open disdain for science. It’s also a bit of a trip to consider that what we have here is a prequel to a film which chronologically follows it, but pre-dates it by just shy of 50 years.

Again, the performance capture is great, with Andy Serkis again informing Caesar with remarkable depth and – for the lack of a better word – humanity. Genuine emotion finds its way to the surface beyond the CGI, more so than most other actors have accomplished. Woody Harrelson makes the most of his part, and neither hams it up nor overplays his hand. Nobody at any point winks at the camera. It’s a pretty impressive piece of work overall.

There is hope yet, Hollywood. A smart, well-orchestrated science fiction trilogy comes to a close. Three and done, and done well. Kudos.

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