MOVIE REVIEW – WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. With Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller. Written by Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves. Directed by Matt Reeves. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images. 140 minutes.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES continues the reboot of the ’70s series, but it’s hard to believe that these bleak and largely humorless films will be remembered in any way like the sometimes campy and often darkly satiric originals. Grant the new films their impressive special effects, where Caesar, the lead ape, is a mixture of computer animation, motion capture technology, and–buried beneath it all–the performance of Andy Serkis.
After a brief recap of the events of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” we’re thrust into a new story. Humanity is much worse off now. There’s fighting among the humans and the disease that brought intelligence to the apes seems to be erasing it from the surviving humans. The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is a holdout. With his troops he plans to create a fortress impenetrable by simians and humans alike, building it with slave labor from captured apes.
When Caesar–who has the power of speech–loses his family during a human raid, he joins the battle, driven by revenge. Before long, Caesar is a prisoner, sadistically beaten and tortured not only by the Colonel, but collaborators among the apes derisively referred to as “donkeys.” There’s only one thing left for him to do, and that’ plan a massive breakout from the prison camp.
Yes, this is essentially the ape version of “The Great Escape,” complete with building tunnels, trying to fool the guards, and all the other trappings of this kind of story. Only they’re apes. Harrelson is bald, like another commandant played by Otto Preminger in “Stalag 17,” another classic of the prison of war escape genre, but the actor capable of a wide range of performances essentially is allowed one note here, snarling a lot.
Of the three films, “Dawn” remains the most interesting, playing with the possibility of an ape/human detente and then showing how it is undercut by both sides. Here it’s much more black and white and, consequently, much less interesting. Except for the collaborators, the apes are all good, although Caesar is said to be struggling with just letting loose against all humans. Meanwhile the humans are all evil, except for Nova (Amiah Miller), an orphan girl the apes pick up along the way. So much for subtlety.
It is a dark and bleak film that seems to have been shot mostly in blue and gray. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, you may be looking for your own escape hatch. This lets up briefly at film’s end to suggest that the surviving apes may have reached a safe haven, but it’s so dreary and heavy-handed that the bigger fear is that they might be setting up a fourth film [which they totally are –Ed.].
For those able to suspend their disbelief and buy into the mythology of the series, “War for the Planet of the Apes” advances this future history and is a showcase of how actors, particulary Serkis and Steven Zahn, as “Bad Ape,” can personalize a performance under layers of special effects. Yet as an example of crisp and compelling storytelling, this “War” is a loss.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.