We all know that apes will inherit the Earth in Fox’s prequel reboot trilogy that now caps off with War for the Planet of the Apes, but is it too much to ask that the apes, led by Andy Serkis’ terrifically motion capture-created chimp Caesar, do a little bit of taking in the process? The moral ground in Matt Reeves’ two sequels to Rupert Wyatt’s fantastic franchise relaunch Rise would appear to be muddied on the surface, but if anything, it’s actually crystal clear.
2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes saw a dwindling human population struggling to retain order in the wake of the devastating Simian Flu, a virus that quickly killed off most people and animals except apes and apparently horses because how else is Charlton Heston going to spot the Statue of Liberty on the beach if he doesn’t have equestrian transportation to get him there? Humans were understandably angry at Caesar and his army of forest-dwelling primates, but for all the brewing tension between leaders of both sides simply trying to do the right thing for their citizens, the ultimate clash that led to this trilogy-ending War was merely the result of a villainous ape gone mad.
It was a convenience and a contrivance that Reeves has now amplified in the latest chapter, where Caesar still craves peace among the warring parties, but can’t have it because Woody Harrelson plays an asshole. Whatever decision Caesar makes, whatever action he performs, whatever plan he devises, it all feels utterly pointless in the grand scheme of our planet preparing to give itself over to a bunch of CGI monkeys that will one day produce an ape version of Roddy McDowell.
Yet the movie and its many ape denizens repeatedly bang the drum that heralds the lionizing of Caesar, always informing us that he is responsible for the furry future that awaits. It’s just a bit difficult to understand why this specific script with this particular plot is so continually convinced that Caesar is a world-changing leader instead of a passive hero who mostly just keeps his chin up and his frown down.
The Simian Flu does most of the work in wiping out the humans and a new development renders several survivors mute in an obvious nod to the original 1968 Planet of the Apes in which all apes spoke and all humans not named Charlton Heston did not. This is just Reeves matching up his prequel to its predecessor, but while the initial reveal of the mysterious loss of voice in a couple characters is easily linked to the virus without explanation, that doesn’t stop Harrelson’s hardened colonel character from eventually monologuing about the origins of the muteness for what feels like an eternity.
Humans that get to keep their voice and haven’t yet succumbed to the virus will find further nastiness in store, such as other humans with more military might than the colonel and a perfectly timed natural disaster. More than anything, Caesar owes a huge thanks to Mother Nature for helping pave the way for an ape-tastic absolution. She certainly sides with the monkeys in this conflict. And the basic message is that it serves those damn dirty humans right. Reeves certainly doesn’t want us to sympathize with any actual people here, except for one little girl who acts as yet another worthless reference to the original movie.
Otherwise, the humans are huge jerks that we’re supposed to hate. An intriguing angle on empathy, perhaps, since the irony is that Reeves acts like a humanist while cheering on the end of humanity. It’s just all too obvious and transparent to make a deeper dramatic impression, though. The presence of the mute girl in Caesar’s group, coupled with an act of mercy early on in the movie, clearly shows that our hero is capable of treating the enemy with compassion, whereas the human colonel does quite the opposite by imprisoning every ape in sight and subjecting them to slave labour. The humans even have a few apes on their side, which they treat like a sub-species.
War movies often take one-sided approaches to the conflict, so drawing the battle lines so thick that you’d have to be an ape-abhorring sadist to even think about rooting for the other side isn’t an automatic detriment for Reeves' movie. And the decision to stick to the primate experience is an impressive one, since after we’re reintroduced to Caesar’s world in the opening minutes of the movie, we never once cut away from the apes to get a glimpse of the humans. All images of the people under the colonel’s command rely on actual interactions between them and Caesar or at least the apes being in such close proximity that they can spy on the human activities.
It’s a neat challenge that Reeves sets for himself, having to develop the villains while keeping the camera’s perspective aligned entirely with the hero’s gaze, but even this gets Reeves into trouble during a stodgy second act that involves a whole lot of waiting around the colonel’s makeshift prison. This of course sets up the need for a prison break, which is handled so shoddily and stinkily (it literally involves monkey feces being thrown at a guard) that it can’t help but pale in comparison to the cleverly developed and executed breakout sequence featured in Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
So much of what unfolds in War’s third act relies on luck, so while his ape pals are eager to pat Caesar on the back for all his good work, the humans in the audience might be left scratching their heads as to what he actually did. Practically every piece of conflict resolution is borne out of some Godlike power doing the dirty work for Caesar. Remove Caesar from the equation entirely and the outcome would probably not be all that different.
Such problems plague the script so incessantly that it becomes tough to enjoy what works. Certainly, Serkis turns in another fine performance as the leader of the apes and Steve Zahn provides lovely work as an adorably innocent ape inserted for comic relief in the otherwise humourless landscape. The effects work that brings the apes to life is more stunning than ever, especially in several close-up shots where the features are so realistic that it’s nearly impossible to believe you’re staring at pixels instead of actual primates. The sound design is tremendous as well, immersing us in the mix of forests and manmade structures that stand in opposition to each other.
But for some reason, War for the Planet of the Apes, like Reeves’ Dawn before it, feels perpetually paranoid that human audiences will turn on Caesar if he ever does anything more than get a bit angry. As a result, this tale of how the planet goes to the apes lacks purpose and personality. Considering the gloriously wackadoodle way that the previous Apes series explained the origins of the ape uprising, bringing a Mobius Strip-like time loop into the mix, this lazy shrug of an explanation from Reeves leaves much to be desired. Perhaps he figured that if monkeys can fling crap, then surely he can too.