Movie Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a riveting, grown-up blockbuster that sets a new standard for the summer moviegoing season.
The crowd that I recently saw “War for the Planet of the Apes” with was, no joke, one of the most flagrantly disrespectful crowds I’ve ever had the misfortune of watching a movie with. Both adults and children were carrying on inane, entirely unnecessary conversations throughout the film, and more than three people were using their cell phones throughout. One team player even decided that it would be really neat if she live-Snapchatted the entire movie. It got so bad that my friend and writing partner (the hero of moviegoing audiences everywhere, I’d argue) had to go and get a theater security guard to ensure that the crowd kept their attention spans at bay and, y’know, paid attention to the movie they had shelled out money to see. When you have to actively seek out a movie theater employee to essentially babysit a bunch of grown adults who don’t understand the concept of communal viewing, it can be easy to feel like moviegoing etiquette as a concept is dead.
Now, you’d think a movie like “War for the Planet of the Apes” would be another noisy, large-scale summer tentpole fueled by a sensory overload so potent that these distractions might not even be noticeable. But you’d be wrong. Like “A Ghost Story” (and surely, this is the only similarity these two aforementioned movies share), “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a largely silent movie — one that necessitates and benefits from optimum viewing conditions. The film is beautifully stripped of worthless exposition, and even the villain’s requisite third-act soliloquy has a scary power. My point being: this is not “Transformers: The Last Knight” or “Kong: Skull Island”. This is not just a brainless action spectacle where you can turn off your brain and turn on your Snapchat. “War for the Planet of the Apes,” like “Logan,” is a dark, mature, slow-burning thriller that’s been disguised as a summer franchise flick. As a feat of technical moviemaking, it is almost unimpeachable.
There are few franchises in our modern-day moviegoing landscape that I am genuinely excited about. With a small handful of exceptions, it’s all the same anonymous sausage being force-fed to us, with only the most minor of variations in the recipe. The “Apes” franchise is one of those exceptions. What began as an energetic reboot of one of the 20th century’s most enduring pop mythologies in Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” has been transformed, two films later, into something bleak, pitiless and unapologetically adult. Both “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and now “War” imagine a world overrun by tyranny and paranoia, where human compassion is a bygone memory and conflicts are resolved in blood and bone. It’s a refreshingly unsentimental approach to genre filmmaking, one that admirably resists the unending juvenile myopia of Marvel and their related ilk.
The director of the last two “Apes” films is Matt Reeves, whose career was launched, in part, due to the wild success of 2008’s found-footage monster movie “Cloverfield”. Reeves also directed a creepy and gorgeous remake of the seminal Swedish vampire film “Let The Right One In” that resisted the urge to dilute the original film’s unchecked weirdness or soften its edges. He’s the rare studio director who seemingly isn’t afraid of complicated human emotion, or holding on a single shot for more than five seconds. With “Dawn,” Reeves cemented his reputation as a consummately skilled; uncommonly patient director-for-hire who rightfully earned drew comparisons to big-screen fantasists like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Ralph Bakshi. With “War,” Reeves charges past that label and cements himself as a bonafide blockbuster hitmaker with the soul of a geek artiste.
Reeves understands one very essential component of Hollywood filmmaking, which is this: if your movie lacks engaging human drama, all the explosions from here to the next “Avatar” movie aren’t going to help your cause. “Dawn” and now “War” both stand on their own two feet as works of cinema because they are rooted in authentic emotion and the principals of classic drama. Caesar — the heroic lead primate of the series, who was little more than a glowering beast in the first film — has become one of modern Hollywood’s most memorably doomed tragic heroes, thanks in no small part to the stunning degree of clarity that Andy Serkis brings to the part. Of course, the “Apes” movies are undeniably thrilling, and “War” in particular delivers enough high-caliber hellfire to (mostly) deliver on what its title promises. And while the movie’s seamless CGI pyrotechnics do deliver an undeniable kinetic jolt, “War’s” unsettling notes of sorrow and doom will linger with you long after you’ve gone home and wiped the popcorn grease from your fingers.
Throughout “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the sound of little children crying in the theater was a near-constant. I want to ask these people: what are you doing bringing your kids to a movie like this? Not that I’m in any position to critique anyone’s parenting skills but yeesh, did these folks think they were getting “Spider-Man: Homecoming” here? “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a grim, dead-serious popcorn drama that has more in common with Akira Kurosawa’s haunting Noh-influenced Shakespeare adaptation “Throne of Blood” than anything coming out of the D.C./Marvel gate (oddly enough, Reeves was recently cherry-picked by the suits at D.C. to helm a more noirish, less brawny iteration of the Batman mythology — go figure). This new adventure is one without traditional heroes and villains, without a happy ending, and one that exists in a profoundly discomforting moral grey area. There is a hypnotic austerity to this new “Apes” film that even I wasn’t expecting, and while this appears to be the end of this series (at least for the foreseeable future), it’s a fucking excellent note to go out on.
“War” begins in the tumultuous period where “Dawn” left off. Caesar and the rest of his ape kin have been driven into exile. They exist on the barren outskirts of Northern California’s Muir woods, where they live in fear of violent human militias who prowl the woods with phrases like “Ape Killer” and “Bedtime for Bonzo” scrawled onto their soldier’s helmets. To his immense credit, Reeves paints a far more abstruse portrait of humanity’s future in “War” than he ever did in “Dawn”. Some apes have joined their overseer’s concerted fascistic efforts to rid the world of their kind, while the remaining humans are succumbing to a deadly virus called the Simian Flu that renders them unable to verbally communicate. Caesar, meanwhile, is no longer the idealistic soldier we saw in the first two films. He is now a general: embittered and battle-hardened and plagued by sinister memories of the fallen ape Koba (Toby Kebbel), who had attempted to warn him about the cruelty of man.
Early in the first act, a vicious attack is carried out by human troops against Caesar’s ape compound, the resulting fracas leaving our hero’s wife and child dead. Spiritually broken and now fueled by little more than hopelessness and retribution, Caesar sets out with a cadre of fellow apes (including the benevolent Orangutan Maurice, a franchise favorite) to avenge his family’s senseless killing.
Caesar’s sojourn takes the form of a John Boorman-esque journey into darkness picture: think “Deliverance” without the sexual sadism, or his Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune-starring “Hell in the Pacific”. Other times, it feels like the monkey variation of a hard-nosed revisionist Western a la “Unforgiven”. Along the way, our heroic apes make the acquaintance of a young, wide-eyed mute girl named Nova (heavy shades of “Let Me In’s” melancholic arthouse horror color these scenes), and also a panicky, sweet-natured baboon named Bad Ape, who has just narrowly escaped from a simian prison encampment overseen by a savage, Kurtzian madman known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson, radiating bottled-up resentment and wild-eyed menace in equal measure).
Few other studio directors are as adept at creating utterly believable fantasy worlds and marrying them with hard-hitting emotion in the way that Mr. Reeves seems so deftly capable of doing. His action scenes have a startling lucidity to them: the director favors long, precisely realized takes (like his unforgettable 360-atop-a-tank pan in “Dawn”) and the blistering final act of “War” contains some of the director’s most jaw-dropping choreography to date.
And yet, while all this carnage is being doled out, Reeves is quietly sewing the seams of the emotional threads he’s been working on since the opening passages of “Dawn”. There’s a respect for continuity in these last two “Ape” movies that is, dare I say, an anomaly in modern-day franchise filmmaking, in which mythology can seem more like doing homework than actively using your imagination. A show-stopping avalanche sequence in the final act of “War” is one of 2017’s most staggering screen wonders, but the scene’s resolution ripples with notes of fatalism. There are images of strife in this new “Apes” picture — of bloodshed, of real suffering, of families being torn from their children crying and screaming — that absolutely took my breath away. In moments such as these, Reeves’ fourth film adroitly sidesteps colorful, limited fantasia of today’s blockbuster entertainment and swan dives headfirst into the ugly morass of our current world.
In a movie like this, creating a plausible world of make-believe is everything. “War” is the apex of the series in this regard, and if nothing else, this franchise has set a new high standard for authenticity in CGI filmmaking. The apes of this film are far past being a visual gimmick; they occupy most of the screen time, and Reeves trusts their wordless interactions (they communicate through a mix of sign language and limited English) to carry the full weight of the story. A lot of this considerable work falls on the shoulders of the great Andy Serkis, who has trumped his career-defining work in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy to give us what is essentially a master class in stop-motion acting. As he did in “Dawn”, Serkis turns Caesar into a compelling, flawed, occasionally desperate and undeniably three-dimensional hero: one fueled by his bottomless sense of rage, but also limited by his begrudging identification with the humans he’s been conditioned since birth to loathe.
Elsewhere, Steve Zahn lends his wily charms to the part of Bad Ape, who comes close to being comic relief in a blockbuster that is so relentlessly dark it occasionally borders on glumness. Of course, Woody Harrelson is riffing on Marlon Brando’s mad man of combat from “Apocalypse Now” (certainly not the only reference that Reeves makes to Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal war epic), and he’s having an unfiltered blast doing so. He turns The Colonel into one of 2017’s weirdest and most watchable movie bad guys, though a monologue he delivers to Caesar in the third act of “War” is genuinely chilling in what it says about our current geopolitical landscape (not that the film is by any means explicitly topical).
I suspect that there are those who may not go for the movie’s capital-S seriousness, and who may view Reeves’ lofty artistic ambitions as something akin to art-kid pomposity. Like Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” “War for the Planet of the Apes” is only tangentially interested in being a summer action flick. It mainly uses its franchise trappings as a kind of clothesline, off which the filmmakers hang obsessive, beautiful sequences that explore themes of tribalism, nobility, and interspecies conflict. Though the film undeniably supplies the crackerjack set pieces that most audiences have come to see, I suspect that “War” on the whole might be too languid and punishing for average multiplex viewers. What adds to the weight of this third “Apes” film is its sense of finality. There are no easter eggs, no post-credit sequences, no needless teasing of future films to come. This is it. This is the end. And what an end it is: bracing, poignant, and superbly crafted.
Movies like “War for the Planet of the Apes” are why it is important — even when we are compelled to check out the big, loud, fun Hollywood products that flood our movie houses — to respect the basic process of moviegoing etiquette. Personally, I don’t give two shits if your phone goes off during “The Fate of the Furious”. Sure, it’s annoying as hell, but it’s really just one more piece of external noise competing with the noise onscreen. “War for the Planet of the Apes,” in case you haven’t surmised by now, is not your average Hollywood product. First and foremost, it is a film, and a very good one at that — one that requires at least the bare minimum of courtesy from its audience. I bemoan the lack of manners exhibited by those with whom I saw the film, though I look forward to seeing it again with a more respectful crowd. In any case, don’t let my cautionary tale prevent you from seeing what is perhaps (“Logan” aside) the year’s most rousing summer spectacle. Maybe just call a babysitter for the kids? Grade: A-.