First came the rise, then the dawn, and now moviegoers may witness War for the Planet of the Apes, the third installment of the rebooted series from the iconic 1970s film franchise. Set 15 years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the latest offering has the ape leader Caesar (motion-cap performance master Andy Serkis) and his primate community hidden in a dense forest, wanting only peace. But the humans, raging against the repercussions of the deadly virus that upset their planetary dominance, will not rest until the last of these evolved apes is dead. Woody Harrelson co-stars as the latest human tyrant to oppose Caesar, this time an overzealous colonel who believes his is not just a battle for the future of mankind, but a holy war.
Mark Bomback and director Matt Reeves’s script weaves together elements of Westerns, war movies, and religious epics to construct a complicated adventure. When the colonel storms into the ape strong hold and draws first blood, Caesar gathers a small posse of horseback-riding primates to saddle up and ride off to hunt down the man who would annihilate their species. This brings the likes of the intimidating Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), the grizzled chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), and the sage-like orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) into the paths of merciless soldiers, a speechless human child who needs protection, and an escaped zoo chimp who speaks English, and calls himself “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn). But once this motley shrewdness of apes reaches the unhinged colonel’s strong hold, they discover it’s become a concentration camp, where the apes are treated as slaves earmarked for execution. And so begins Caesar’s Moses-like quest to get this tyrant to let his primates go.
War of the Planet of the Apes is a very ambitious movie. Reeves, who also helmed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, kicks things off with an explosive and intense opening action sequence that sees the colonel’s squad armed to the teeth, and sneaking up on an ape outpost. The battle will be brutal, brandishing grenades, gunfire, and heavy thunking arrows. The bodycount will be high. Yet this is just an appetizer for the meal that is Reeves’ grand finale, which folds in two converging armies, a tricky escape plan, and one big, rattling surprise that will forever turn the tide of this battle of man and ape. Seamlessly blending human actors with CGI creatures and a wealth of visual effected violence, the film delivers awe-inspiring action. So why was I so bored?
In some respects, War of the Planet of the Apes is a towering accomplishment. Its action is astonishing. Its visual effects are sure to win awards. The film was shot with actors squeezed into special body suits, their faces dotted with white markers, and a small camera-rig mounted from their scalp to capture their every expression and micro-expression. Humans, dressed in hi-tech gear, portray highly intelligent apes. And the effects team builds every element of their performance into a CGI creation that’s weight, texture, movement, and expression is alarmingly photo real. Mournful eyes communicate regret. Pursed lips express repressed rage. These are characters who look like they could swing right off the screen and into our lives. So why did I feel nothing? I blame Caesar.
Etched over three films (and possibly counting), Caesar’s story is one of tragedy upon tragedy. So it makes sense that Serkis, the pioneering performer whose played such mo-cap created creatures as The Lord of the Rings‘ mercurial Gollum and Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ nefarious Snoke, would portray him as restrained and guarded. But this choice chops off a lot of the films drama at its knees. The stoic Caesar not only sets the tone of the film as its hero, but also of his tribe as their leader. And this doggedly solemn tone becomes suffocating to any lightness and joy, making the indulgent 2-hour and 22-minute runtime feel one-note and like a chore.
To his credit, Reeves tries to work some levity and innocence into a tale that is predominantly grim. The rescued mute moppet named Nova (Amiah Miller) inspires some of Caesar’s posse to defining moments of gentle generosity. In these brief reprieves from the film’s trenchantly stern tone, a light is shown as to how man and ape might be able to live in peace after all, a way beyond the war. The other bright spot is Zahn’s sure-to-be beloved Bad Ape.
Long left to scrape by on his own, he is essentially a loopy hermit. His hair largely lost from stress or abuse, Bad Ape looks a bit ridiculous with his bald head and predilection for human winter wear (to keep him warm from the biting cold of the mountains where he hides). But when Caesar and the gang show up, he’s eager to please, sharing provisions, bobbles, and his sad, sad story. But even in this, the chimp’s plucky attitude achieves some of the films few (and much-needed) laughs.
I admire Reeves’ ambition. Everything from the sprawling action sequences, to the resounding orchestral score, and even the straight-faced seriousness of his apes speaks to his respect for this property. He clearly set out to make not just a summer blockbuster that’d thrills audiences, but also one that the Academy Awards might see as a grand drama on the same level of the films it earnestly references, like Apocalypse Now and The Ten Commandments. But amid all his big ideas, Reeves lost touch with the property’s humanity, creating an impressive but cold epic.
The War For The Planet of the Apes opens July 14th.
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