With the arrival of yet another sequel to a long-running franchise, in this case the surprisingly powerful War for the Planet of the Apes, it’s time for a game of “How many of these movies have I seen, and have I liked them?” Don’t worry. This is still my War review, and I’ll get to more of that in a minute. But first, a brief history lesson is in order:
Between 1968 and 1976, five Planet of the Apes movies and two TV shows consisting of a combined 27 episodes were released, which is an awful lot of content for any one franchise in such a relatively short amount of time. It’s not surprising then that the public grew tired of those damn dirty apes. We didn’t see them on screen again until Tim Burton’s ill-fated 2001 remake, and then another decade passed before we got into the rebooted trilogy, first Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) then Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and now, of course, War (2017).
The original films predate me. I mostly know them through random late-night marathons glimpsed in my youth, giggling at the sight of the subterranean mutant humans worshipping a nuclear bomb in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) (although back in the day that passed for rather potent social commentary). I saw Burton’s remake opening night with my friends, and still distinctly remember our amazingly geeky post-viewing conversations about what to make of the twist ending. For whatever reason, I came away from all of that with the impression of the Apes franchise as being rather schlocky and overly obvious in its messaging, rather bluntly (and not always successfully) speaking to issues like the Cold War and strained race relations in America. The prospect of further adventures in the Apes world where Simians and humans just can’t get along held no interest for me.
As a result, I have held the rebooted trilogy at arms length from the get-go, mocking from afar the apparent cash-grab cynicism of Fox making three of these damn things in 6 years and still not actually getting to the titular Planet of the Apes. Sure, just slap new words to the beginning of Planet of the Apes and keep cranking these things out, even if two of those titles (Rise and Dawn) are dangerously close to being synonyms. You do you, Fox. I’ll be over here watching literally anything else.
But then I rented Rise, which stars James Franco as a scientist using chimpanzees as test animals in his race to find a cure for Alzheimer’s due to his quickly deteriorating father (a heartbreaking John Lithgow). The inevitable tragedy kicks in when the cure he produces morphs into a super virus which wipes out humans with ruthless efficiency while also simultaneously making primates super smart. The final scene visualizes the spread of the super virus and end of humanity in respectably gut-punching fashion, recalling Terminator 3’s similarly bleak “and then everyone died” ending.
All in all, a better movie than I expected, but not one which left me longing for a sequel. Andy Serkis’ mo-capped chimp Caesar was clearly the most interesting thing on screen at any given moment, but did we really need to see his further adventures beyond Rise?
But then Dawn came along and was hailed as Shakespeare with apes by euphoric critics, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care. Gary Oldman as a thinly drawn villain? Kerri Russell and Jason Clarke kind of just hanging around as the “likable humans”? A brilliant first two acts which plunge into heady ideas about the inevitability of war and lingering resentments between oppressor and oppressed classes before giving way to a nonsense third act? No thanks. I’ll pass. At the end of the day, it’s just a movie about CGI apes. I just…I can’t get into it.
Says the guy who regularly watches superhero movies where often times absolutely nothing on screen is real, or the guy who likes the Guardians of the Galaxy movies where two of the lead characters are a talking tree and raccoon.
Oh, touche, other me.
Now, War has shown me just how wrong and small-minded I was. In short, I was blown away by this movie, mostly in the way it took me next to no time to get sucked into the story and stop focusing on the “How’d they do that?” of it all (WETA’s lifelike animation for the apes deserves any and all special effects awards it’s eligible for).
Of course, due to War’s uniformly positive early reviews a predictable backlash has formed, with some arguing this trilogy capper merely stands out in a summer of especially weak competition. Compared to the Transformers: The Last Knight it’s understandably refreshing to encounter something which actually has ambitions of using the blockbuster form to make something of substance, but we’re all letting that blind us to War’s many failings, such as its mockable embrace of “Serious Movie” cliches, as The Ringer argued:
Darkening the palette, extending the runtime, fleshing it all out with polite melodrama, and regurgitating respected non-genre movies (Glory, Spartacus, Apocalypse Now) doesn’t make a film inherently serious. War has little to add to its references besides shadow and grit. It’s an empty shell of a movie — but it looks great, and it’s very good at appearing to be more than it is.
Indeed, there is a LOT of Glory, Spartacus and Apocalypse Now in War, which sees Caesar plunging into his own heart of darkness in pursuit of revenge after he suffers a great personal loss at the hands of Woody Harrelson’s Kurtz-esque Colonel. By taking his eye off the ball, Caesar allows his people to be taken prisoner, and much of the film involves the apes working as slaves and building a border wall – for spoilery reasons – at a weapons depot overseen by the Colonel and his overzealous soldiers. There is a re-staging of Glory’s famous scene in which Denzel Washington (playing a slave-turned-Civil-War-soldier) is publicly whipped for insolence but refuses to give his punishers the satisfaction of seeing the pain actually register on his face in any way. And the color palette is oppressively dark.
For example, I was Jack’s complete lack of surprise when I read in Den of Geek’s set visit that most of War’s surprisingly snow-packed scenes were filmed in the same region of Canada that provided the particularly harsh backdrop for The Revenant. War’s cinematographer certainly looks to have picked up some tips from Emmanuel Lubezki’s Oscar-winning work in that film.
However, instead of acting as a deterrent or distraction these elements all worked for me because it was all in service to telling a familiar, but compelling story about a heroic figure being pushed to his breaking point. I would more criticize the film’s unwillingness to linger a little longer on Caesar’s personal loss at the start of the movie. His rage fuels his journey for the rest of the story, yet we don’t feel it as deeply as we could, with the loss occurring off-screen and its aftermath being merely glimpsed. Moreover, there is a comic relief character played by Steve Zahn who is occasionally pushed a little far into slapstick.
Other than that, I have nothing bad to say about this movie. It might be guilty of being a Serious Movie with a capital S and M that flirts with social drama, but those aren’t inherently bad things. And the dramatic weight behind the performances and overall story results in several scenes of such strength and beauty which have stuck with me long after my initial viewing, particularly one dreamlike sequence involving an angelic little girl offering drink and food to the oppressed because it’s the right thing to do.
THE BOTTOM LINE
OMG. So good.