While Hollywood executives and pundits rush to brainstorm excuses for this summer’s weak performance at the U.S. box office and blame anyone but themselves, too many debaters are forgetting not all the output was mediocre…which brings us at long last to War for the Planet of the Apes, a movie I liked so much that I had trouble finding anything remotely cogent to express about it beyond “It’s really good and Andy Serkis is awesome!”
Short version for the unfamiliar: After the events of Rise of and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (in that order, which I can never keep straight), the talking simian population continues making great strides in forming their own civilization, while humanity won’t stop dying off or forming Walking Dead morally compromised cliques. Once again people ruin everything as our main monkey Caesar (mo-cap king Andy Serkis) finds his citizens being abducted by a militia meaning to enslave them for one of the most nefarious purposes ever concocted by mankind: to build them a wall. But a wall against what? And can Caesar and a ragtag band of outsiders free the majority from their evil work camp and live to see the prequel trilogy come full circle? And can they put up with their new sidekick, a mute orphan girl (Amiah Miller) who at first glance doesn’t have much to contribute?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Woody Harrelson is the militia leader who’s seen Apocalypse Now at least eighty-four times and yearns to inhabit the soul and skin of Marlon Brando. Harrelson isn’t quite as far gone as Colonel Kurtz was, but his deceptively calm demeanor and camera angles are familiar. He’s a bit more wild-eyed, but stubbornly resists the urge to chew any scenery. With desperation and secret regrets he orders the ape conscriptions for what he believes is a cause far more important than their freedom.
Returning mo-cap all-stars include The Descendants‘ Judy Greer, Terry Notary (another seasoned pro beneath the mo-cap dots like Serkis), and Toby Kebbell for a haunting flashback or two. Steve Zahn steals as much screen time as he can as Bad Ape, a loner found in the winter woods who wants to be helpful but is a few bananas short of a bunch. Likewise unrecognizable without the end credits at hand is Alessandro Juliani, a.k.a. Dr. Emil Hamilton from TV’s Smallville.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? The increasingly intelligent apes demand liberty and peace, but the stigma of their longtime animal kingdom membership makes them a tidy target for oppression. Thankfully taxation without representation isn’t an issue since they don’t have a monetary system or a need for infrastructure overhaul yet. This time around, though, the humans have far more at stake that simply thumping their chests and proving they’re still the biggest and baddest on two legs.
Most of the focus is on Andy Serkis and his disciples showcasing the latest advancements in CG-augmented performances. In stark contrast to your average summertime flicks, War keeps the mood and pacing low-key, allowing the apes to inhabit their environments, explore the weight of their emotions, convey entire paragraphs with concise gestures, even take the time to stare if they feel like it. Improvisational getaways, betrayal, torture, a death in the family, and uneasy alliances are just some of the complex issues that returning director Matt Reeves lets his cast work through in the classic filmmaking traditions of old.
Later in the film, Harrelson switches to exposition mode and disrupts the usual pattern of aggression with what I’d call a timely revelation: the struggle for society’s survival isn’t a trite, us-vs.-them binary. Because there often are more than two sides to a story.
Nitpicking? Arguably it’s a little slow in parts without all that wall-to-wall frenetic camera-swinging or set-detonating that we’ve been conditioned to expect when temperatures top 90 degrees outside. If you’re into the nuanced acting and thoughtful story progression, that’s not necessarily a problem, but it’s the closest I have to a single complaint. Well, this and I wish any of the other non-CG players had been given the slightest chance to keep up with Woody.
Oh, and hardcore fans of the original Apes series may grumble a bit when they notice that a few classic names return with their context adjusted a smidgen.
So what’s to like? At its heart War is a reprise of all the best prison camp escape films ever, from The Great Escape all the way up to Chicken Run. Caesar gets his blunt “LET MY PEOPLE GO!” declarations, his opportunities for heartbreaking sacrifice, and — at the very, very end — one last spectacular action sequence as pandemonium breaks out between humans, apes, more humans, probably all of America’s remaining helicopters, and a gorgeous but dangerous mountainside. Once it’s time for Going Ape meets Platoon, Reeves pulls out all the stops and, once the snow and fur settle, organically ushers the survivors toward that inevitable rendezvous with ape domination, revisionist ape history, and ultimately a time-traveling Charlton Heston.
Not only was War for the Planet of the Apes one of the two best films of this summer (hi, Diana!), it also earns a newfound dignity that America had never thought conceivable in the phrase “prequel trilogy”.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the War for the Planet of the Apes end credits, though the cast list confirms Terry Notary had at least four relatives join him under the mo-cap dots. It’s good to know the ape-acting legacy should be in good hands if and when it’s time for this series’ answer to The Force Awakens.