War for the Planet of the Apes
It isn’t difficult to see why War of the Planet of the Apes didn’t open as well as its predecessor and is unlikely to come close to its gross; it plays it safe. Which sounds odd to say, for such a dark, downbeat, (almost) relentlessly grim blockbuster, but the lack of differentiation between this and its dark, downbeat, (almost) relentlessly grim predecessor suggests Matt Reeves and Fox thought more of the same would tickle its audience’s anthropoid itch, when in fact it only leads to a lack of differentiation. Which is a shame, as War of the Planet of the Apes is (mostly) an accomplished movie, expertly directed by Reeves and performed with due conviction by its mo-capped (and otherwise) cast.
It does seem a tad churlish to complain about what a movie might have been when it maintains the series’ consistent high technical and thematic quality, but I’m now firmly in the camp of wishing some of the more tonally-varied content of the original pictures was finding its way into this re-envisaging. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first two thirds of War of the Planet of the Apes are the most engrossing, in which Caesar’s quest for revenge runs in tandem with various mysteries (what is happening to the humans, why is the Colonel killing his own) as well as dropping nuggets of series lore (Cornelius, Nova, Alpha-Omega).
Caesar’s downfall, putting his personal vendetta above the welfare of his brood, is potently depicted through, leading to a fitting ending that emphasises no good can come from such thinking, but I nevertheless had the lurking feeling that these weren’t the actions of the Caesar we knew, whereby at some point he ought to have regrouped, rationalised and taken the higher path (Reeves, bending Caesar into the shape of the story he wishes to tell, on some level appears to recognise this, feeding the Colonel observations like “Always so emotional”).
The picture is more inspired prior to the arrival at the ape gulag, taking in encounters (Nova, Bad Ape) and moral quandaries. Once imprisoned by the Colonel, Reeves ups the tension, and Woody Harrelson more than fills the boots of main antagonist, with his own considered motivation, but there’s little sense we’re breaking any new ground. We’re swapping out an ape baddie (Koba, who resurfaces in Caesar’s troubled visions of the ape he fears he is becoming) for a human one, and we’re back in a grey, drab, washed-out milieu.
The narrative and thematic oppositions, while powerfully conveyed, lack the compellingly grand plotting of the first four originals (whatever their individual defects). Sure, a prison break movie with apes is a reasonable idea, but didn’t we already get a prison break in Rise of the Planet of the Apes? And with considerably less reliance on conveniently-placed tunnels, just waiting to be fallen into, conveniently-placed flammable fuel tanks, just waiting to explode and wipe out all the humans on the battlements (it’s a wonder they required Caesar to blow them up, as one good flyby of those army helicopters ought to have done the job), and a conveniently-placed pile of snow, just waiting to avalanche the area (one can only assume the Colonel wasn’t up to snuff long before the virus mutated him into a mute).
With regard to the mechanics of the virus mutation, if the Colonel is right in his analysis, then Nova, who we have invested in as the most genuine character in the picture, is doomed to devolve into a primitive/mentally feeble state; a reflection of how upbeat this series is. And the Colonel does seem fairly certain, hence shooting himself in the head. As to the significance of the infecting toy, if humans carry the (presumably mutating) virus anyway? It needs an external trigger? Or does it simply come with the territory of a magic virus that dumbs down humans while simultaneously evolving apes, such that Nova imbues Maurice with the ability to speak? Reeves leaves it a little grey, but if it’s maybe a little too neat for material that otherwise thrives on “realism”, it works thematically.
I have other niggles; honestly, the quasi-biblical elements of sacrificed children, floods and promised lands didn’t do an awful lot for me (having in mind Caesar as a Moses-type is one thing, but over garnishing it visually is another). And do we really need foregrounding of “Ape-ocalypse Now” on graffiti in a movie already nursing Woody’s possessed Colonel shaving his bald pate while delivering a cogent thesis on his fine madness?
But the characters are where this series has been most celebrated, and it’s Reeves skill in this quarter that largely prevents the picture from becoming an over-familiar trudge. It isn’t for nothing that these Apes movies have been trumpeted as an unlikely example of intelligent, nuanced blockbusters (although, this is equally true of the originals). Serkis is yet again a powerhouse as Caesar. Less showy but still hugely compelling is Karin Konoval as the mostly mute Maurice – the effects work is all-round great, but on Maurice particularly so – who gets possibly the most affecting subplot in respect of his parental feelings towards young Nova (Amiah Miller).
Reeves elicits a fine moppet performance from Miller, particularly in expressing Nova’s grief over the death of Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), so it’s a shame she’s doomed to mindless oblivion. And it would be more powerful still if not for the shamelessly over-emphatic Michael Giacchino score. He’s a composer whose work I usually admire, but here seems to be under the illusion this a movie from the Hollywood Golden Age, where the soundtrack’s responsibility is to treat the audience like emotional idiots in need of a guiding ear.
Steven Zahn also provides a welcome light touch as the disturbed but comical chimp Bad Ape, able to speak and fond of wearing body warmers. Even an ape like Red (Ty Olsson), loathsome in his cruelty, is offered an arc of sorts and a final glimpse of salvation.
Fox has now completed a Caesar trilogy, and one assumes, even if receipts are down, they’ll be planning a further trilogy to cover the events of the ’67 Planet of the Apes. Whatever tentative ideas there are for Reeves continuing with the baton, I suspect he’ll move on; he pulls his punches creatively somewhat here, such that new blood and ideas would be sensible at this point, albeit with the proviso of Andy Serkis returning, now as the adult Cornelius (much as Roddy McDowall doubled up roles in the originals).
We’re now at the point of mute humans, with apes all-but ready to take command, so labouring a holding pattern of further internecine simian struggles will only lead to further diminished returns. Deliver us the returning astronaut thrown into an upside-down milieu, the underground mutants (already referenced by the Colonel’s Alpha-Omega faction). But, without the dictating Chuck factor, moving on past the point Beneath left us for a distinct trilogy capper, without that decimated planet (that nihilism, potent as it was, closed off all other plot avenues, except for time-travelling ones).
There’s a lot of juice left in this series, but being caught in yet another gritty ape power play is unlikely to result in fresh ideas or stimulating storytelling and all-important box office.