Technically, War for the Planet of the Apes is a triumph. There are no two ways about it. The fully computer-generated ape protagonists aren’t perfect all of the time just yet, but they have heft and weight and they’re expressive and believable – and while I cannot say how much of the performance is the work of the actors and how much is the animators’, all of these deserve all the praise they receive and more. Outside fully animated films of the Disney and Pixar kind, I cannot remember a film that relied so heavily on non-human protagonists where, after a few minutes, you accept and stop thinking about the fact that the leads in the story aren’t the same species as you.
Nevertheless, as well as the third film in the modern Planet of the Apes franchise pulls off what it does, it didn’t engage me quite as much as its immediate predecessor, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It’s still a good film, one that takes its characters and their plights seriously and quickly convinces us that we should too – but it is also a film that for roughly its first third feels weary and tired. This reflects the main character: Caesar, the series’ lead as much as the leader of the apes, has grown old and he has lost so much, he is entitled to some weariness – but while the tone is justified, it also makes it somewhat difficult to care as much as I did during the first two films. Compare this to Logan, another recent genre film, whose protagonist was similarly weary, yet the film itself didn’t lack energy. War, in spite of the expertly made battle scene that begins it, feels a bit like it was quite an effort to drag itself out of bed and present itself to the audience. Serkis’ eyes that regularly shine through the CGI are soulful, but his wish for revenge is told rather than shown, at least during the first act, his weariness belying his motivations.
However, after a while other characters begin to inject much-needed energy into the film. Surprisingly, Woody Harrelson isn’t one of them, a point I’ll return to later; the new Planet of the Apes films have often suffered from human characters that are much less engaging than the simian ones. However, an orphaned girl who has lost the power of speech is probably the most interesting furless character the series has had since James Franco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and her developing relationship with the ape protagonists is one of the highlights of War – as is Steve Zahn’s goofy yet beautifully balanced performance as Bad Ape, a character that at first comes across comic relief but then shows himself contributing greatly to the heart of the film. While War‘s plot rarely surprises with its developments, deploying tropes common to westerns and Vietnam movies expertly but also somewhat routinely, it does become thrilling and exciting after the doldrums of its beginning, once Caesar doesn’t have to carry the film’s emotional weight on his own.
However, it is a shame that the director and writers of War for the Planet of the Apes are somewhat too enamoured of injecting Vietnam war movie tropes into their film, and especially of referencing Apocalypse Now. The soldiers at the beginning of the film blending into the forest background, their helmets bearing slogans and quips like “Ape Killer” and “Bedtime for Bonzo”, already give the game away (and I did giggle at the human soldiers calling their ape enemy “the Kong”), but the main antagonist, the Colonel, is a misstep. He is portrayed by the usually reliable Woody Harrelson in what amounts too much to a blatant Colonel Kurtz pastiche – and let’s be honest, while Apocalypse Now is one of the most frequently, well, aped war movie, I cannot think of a single straight-faced take on the philosophical butcher Colonel Kurtz that doesn’t fall short of its inspiration. I can’t really blame Harrelson – the script leaves him little option other than to aim for ersatz Brando, which is competently done but forever falling short of its inspiration.
Nevertheless, while War for the Planet of the Apes doesn’t quite reach the surprisingly Shakespearean intensity of its predecessor, while its plot arc is unevenly paced and its inspirations do it something of a disservice, it is clearly a good, lovingly crafted, engaging film. The trilogy does end on something of a simian take on the Book of Exodus that I personally found too sentimental, but these three films are a good example that genre cinema can be about more than capes and quips and it can try to be serious without becoming weighed down by a sense of self-importance and a grimness that veers towards self-parody. I do hope that Twentieth Century Fox doesn’t milk its franchise, but so far it has found intelligent filmmakers and storytellers to create a reboot that feels neither lazy nor cynical. If they decide to show us a planet that is truly of the apes and give us a new, interesting take on the 1968 pulp classic, I’ll be happy to hand over my simoleons to these simians once again.