Following the success of its 2014 predecessor Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves had a lot to live up to in his final Apes film. Having the potential to be one of the biggest summer blockbuster movies of 2017, as well as being Oscar worthy, does War for the Planet of the Apes live up to the hype? The answer is no.
Sitting at 94% on RottenTomatoes and 83% on MetaCritic, I wonder what these critics were smoking when writing their reviews. I’m sure many of them have degrees in the field and years of experience, but a number of flaws of the movie were overlooked just because there was a shiny coat painted over these cliched tropes. To be clear, this movie isn’t bad—it’s just being put on a higher pedestal than it actually deserves. While the script isn’t as smart as it thinks it is, War for The Planet of the Apes is a technical masterpiece, combining amazing CGI, breathtaking cinematography, and superb acting and directing.
Despite the name, the movie does not contain much war, or even much action. Instead, we get a well paced character-driven narrative, following Caesar (played by Andy Serkis), the main ape of the trilogy. That being said, the story begins with a battle between a scout squad of humans and an ape encampment. After two years passed since Dawn, Caesar and his group of apes face off against a military band of humans, led by a ruthless leader called the Colonel (played by Woody Harrelson). Other than the ridiculous decision for the humans to engage in an uphill battle and without scouting the surrounding area, this battle is the best “war” scene you’ll get in the movie. Great tracking shots, no shaky cam, and well-choreographed scenes bring this visceral battle to life. Matt Reeves did a superb job putting together this cohesive battle sequence. Not even the more bombastic and large scale battle at the end of the film evoked the same sense of awe.
After an assassination attempt by the Colonel, Caesar is hell-bent to exact revenge. Along with a few of his most trusted followers, he sets off on a mission to go to the human military camp and kill the Colonel. The movie follows the apes for most of the screen time, and they do a great job of portraying real, believable characters, even with minimal to no dialogue.
Caesar’s comrades Maurice, Rocket, and Luca were all introduced in previous films, and they all play their roles convincingly: Maurice as his right-hand man and voice of reason, Rocket as his most loyal follower, and Luca as the brawn. Newcomers joining them during their mission are Bad Ape and Nova. Bad Ape, played by Steve Zahn, is a small bald ape acting as comic relief. It would’ve been easy for this character to ruin every scene he’s in, but the script (and a sad backstory), coupled with Zahn’s delivery, played it just right to make Bad Ape a useful and enjoyable character. Nova (played by Amiah Miller) is a human girl who can’t speak and serves as a symbol of hope for the apes, and Miller did sufficiently well to not seem too out of place in this grim world.
Woody Harrelson did a great job as the Colonel, a ruthless, no-mercy military leader and a formidable foe for Caesar. While the character doesn’t feel original in the least (think Kurtz from Apocalypse Now), he has more layers than one would expect, and will certainly have his fair share of sympathizers. Everyone did well at bringing these characters to life, and even though all the apes are CGI, we can believe that they are real beings, especially Andy Serkis’ Caesar. Caesar is a conflicted soul, his past haunting him and his morals being put into question as his thirst for revenge consumes him to become the ape he once despised. We can see Serkis’ every nuanced expression and emotion, showing the inner turmoil and the physical and mental pain that he goes through in this film. While the acting is great, being invested in him and his ape followers is a whole other matter. Most of the emotional scenes in the movie will depend on how much you care for Caesar and his fellow apes, which may also be affected by whether you have watched the previous two films. If you don’t care for the apes at all, then the film could feel like it drags on a lot.
But what really pulls you away from the immersion into their world is the abundance of cliches. It seems as though during production, they spent their time polishing every aspect of the movie except finding original ideas for the plot. Other than the twist revealed halfway through the film, almost every other plot point is taken from the many movies before it. Some examples: there just happens to be conveniently placed explosive gas tanks all over the facility, the enemy has every opportunity to end Caesar for good but doesn’t, characters having a change of heart at the exact moment that’s needed, explosions surrounding but not hitting Caesar as he runs Michael Bay style. The standout example of this is the cliched prison escape scene. All I will say is the prison security is so goddamn pitiful you start to wonder why the apes were ever scared of these half competent sapiens. The whole movie is stringed together with cliches; when you see something and think “this is what’s going to happen next,” it probably is going to happen. The theme of “nature always wins” and “evolution will inevitably take place” has always been explored throughout the films, but the deus ex machina at the end really slammed it in our faces.
Religious and political symbolism was also pervasive throughout the film, including situations and imagery alluding to Jesus, Moses, WWII concentration camps, and overzealous American patriotism. While some of these were a little too prominent and can detract from what could otherwise have been a more original movie, they can still be mostly ignored or enjoyed.
Other than the plot, War has done pretty much everything else right. The imagery, the sound, the CGI were all at the highest level of quality that you’ll see in today’s cinema. From scenes of iconic apes riding horseback on the beach, calling back to the original Apes movie, to scenes with harsh lighting illuminating the expressive faces of downtrodden apes in prison camps, almost every frame is a piece of art. The CGI done by Weta Digital is realistic enough that you believe these are real apes. The music (composed by Michael Giacchino), although not very memorable, supported Reeve’s imagery and helped bring more emotional weight to every scene it is in.
The reboot Apes movies are a success—there’s no doubt about that. This third movie won’t be an exception, but there is always room for improvement, especially in its narrative. What could’ve been a filmmaking masterpiece, is bogged down by using predictable plot devices and symbolic imagery that is just a tad too on-the-nose, which can easily be solved with a smarter and more original script. I believe what also ties it down is Reeve’s need to connect it back to the original 1968 movie, and having free reign in that regard might have really improved it. Naming the movie “War” is also misleading, and personally, I would have much rather watched a film about Caesar, against all odds, fending off and defeating the Colonel’s army in a war using his great leadership and tactical skills, something that was sorely missing. Nevertheless, War for the Planet of the Apes is worth watching. It may not be as enjoyable for people who want a smarter story and don’t care much for eye candy, but as a summer blockbuster, it gets the job done.