Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the third and final installment of this new “Apes” series, is a big bummer. We’re a long way from the rousingly cheesy, self-reflexivity of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” and even the somber tone of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” seems light when compared this film’s apocalyptic outlook.
An impending, unavoidable sense of doom lingers in every scene. Michael Seresin’s cinematography is muted and grey hued; death and destruction is everywhere. There’s no getting around it: you’re screwed. Well, you’re screwed if you're a human. Humans were the ones who experimented on apes in the first place, indirectly sparking a smart ape rebellion, and they’re the ones who developed the virus that wiped out a sizable chunk of the population, a virus that’s still inflicting damage. And now the humans want to blame the apes for the human concocted devastation. In “Dawn,” ape-human conflict was also unavoidable but the ending provided a modicum of hope; humans and apes could get along. In this film, there is no hope. Humans are determined to annihilate the apes…and each other.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” is an uncomfortable, morose drama about the sheer ugliness of humanity. “Rise” and “Dawn” tried to create sympathetic, likable human characters but in “War” there are none. * In fact, the only fleshed out human is a delusional, psychopathic military colonel simply known as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson, bald, menacing, resembling Colonel Kurtz) who’s leading the charge against the intelligent simians and even runs an ape concentration camp. Yes, an ape concentration camp. Watching the film, you can’t help but root for humanity’s demise. And honestly, that’s okay. The sympathetic human characters were always the weakest links in “Rise” and “Dawn.” Talented actors like James Franco, Jason Clarke and Keri Russell played such thin, inconsequential characters whose sole purpose was to demonstrate that not all humans were cruel or obsessed with senseless destruction.
The apes are who we really care about--especially their noble and assertive leader Caesar (Andy Serkis, remarkable as always). These movies have always been about Caesar and his coming of age, from carefree chimp raised in a human environment, to the gracious but fierce leader of the apes he is now, trying to find an ape paradise and live in peace away from brutal, self imploding humanity. We always rooted for the apes to rebel against their cruel captors. What visceral joy we felt when a young Caesar stood up to Draco Malfoy and defiantly roared “No!” breaking his kind out of captivity and running amuck in San Francisco.
Instead of trying to create more James Franco’s and Jason Clarke’s, “War” gives us nothing but Draco Malfoy’s. This decision feels appropriate given the series’ tonal shift from silly popcorn action to somber, end of the world drama and it makes for a more focused movie. Now we don’t have to pretend we care about the humans. Just go ahead and destroy yourselves, please!
Reeves’ frames the narrative entirely from the point of view of the apes. The film takes place a few years after the turbulent events of “Dawn,” as Caesar and his tribe of simians have taken refuge in a cave deep in the forest. Now grizzled and battle worn, Cesar desperately wants peace but that’s not possible right now. Caesar is compassionate and clear-headed, with a violent and sometimes uncontrollable temper. “War for the Planet of the Apes” sees him grapple with his impulsive, animalistic tendencies. After suffering heavy, personal losses at the hands of The Colonel, Caesar loses his cool and embarks on an admirable but single-minded quest for vengeance that puts his entire tribe in jeopardy. Instead of getting satisfaction, Caesar gets more suffering.
Despite what the title suggests, there’s very little in the way of action in the film, outside of an introductory forest set battle and a climactic battle set near a small mountain. It’s more of a misanthropic drama about the costs of war and impulsive aggression than a full-fledged war movie.
One of this franchise’s greatest strengths is the way it emphasizes character and emotional vitality over spectacle and action. In “War,” the action is pared down to the essentials, making room for more intimate character interactions— conversations between Caesar and Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary) his loyal comrades who accompany him on his journey. Understated, poignant moments are prioritized over large, bombastic ones. Caesar’s conversation with The Colonel where we catch a glimpse inside the soldier’s dark and tormented soul is bone chilling, while the look of immense pain and regret on Caesar’s face when he first discovers the damage his revenge quest has done is heartbreaking.
I’ll be curious to see how well this film does with general audiences. It’s not action packed and it’s not very fun. It’s one of the most cynical blockbusters I’ve ever seen. Additionally, the marketing has been all over the place, with TV spots suggesting plotlines that don’t exist and a string of wildly misleading patriotic themed posters. 20th Century Fox is having trouble selling “War for the Planet of the Apes” because it’s a hard sell. It’s deeply unsettling, with a very ugly view of humanity. But it’s also a very moving, rewarding experience and an excellent conclusion to a superb trilogy.
*That’s not entirely true. There is a little blonde girl, Nova (Amiah Miller) who is picked up by Caesar during his journey. It’s difficult to not care about a child in a movie but there isn’t much to her character. Despite what certain trailers will tell you, Nova does very little. In the end, she does sort of serve a purpose but she could have been removed from the film without any problems.