There is a great deal of technical mastery in Matt Reeves’s War for the Planet of the Apes. The special effects alone deserve praise and adulation. I just wished I liked it more than I did.
I haven’t seen the two prequels before War for the Planet of the Apes, but I’m a firm believer that movies shouldn’t require homework beforehand. The decision to have only a few of the apes be able to talk is an impressive and daring choice though. I can’t imagine the uphill battle Reeves must have had trying to make a multi-million dollar special effects extravaganza where the majority of the cast communicate through sign language and grunts.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a war movie. It’s also a revenge story, a road trip movie, a prison escape movie, an outbreak movie, and a post-apocalyptic feel good movie about family with a capital ‘F’. It’s not even that it doesn’t do those stories well; it does. Everyone turns in nothing short of beautiful and emotional performances, mostly.
Andy Serkis as Caesar would be mesmerizing if not for the hollowed out script. Still, seeing Serkis’s renegade conflicted pacifist rebel leader wrestle with his inner demons is spellbinding. Whatever problems the film may have, Sirkis isn’t one of them. Neither is Amiah Miller as Nova, the young girl Caesar and his friends discover on their search for the Colonel’s base. She has no lines and yet gives a powerful and emotive performance. It’s a broad performance but it works. Caesar’s right hand ape Maurice (Karin Konoval) takes her under his wing. She is an orphan with no family and, strangely, no voice.
Caesar eventually finds out the humans are suffering from a virus that is turning them into less intelligent animals. They are losing their speech, and their humanity is quickly following. Caesar learns that an army from the north is coming to meet the Colonel. Caesar slowly begins to wonder if maybe the northern army isn’t coming to destroy the mad Colonel instead.
All this is wasted in an overlong, dull witted, humorless, self important cinematic braggadocio. This movie is two and half hours long, and far as I’m concerned, for no good reason. Rarely have I seen such beautiful and loving craftsmanship done with so little joy or self awareness.
Well, that’s not entirely true. It also loves other movies, as evident by the countless homages strewn all throughout the movie. Except they’re not homages. They are almost copies, used for the same purpose as the original scenes, which lends the moments a mechanical feeling.
Woody Harrelson’s Colonel is CLEARLY modeled after Marlon Brando’s Kurtz from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. So much so that it never breaches being what it is, an imitation. Even his speech patterns and voice modulation resemble Brando’s. It’s not until late in the movie when the Colonel interrogates Caesar that we see shades of a performance. This is because for once Harrelson is playing a character and not reminding us of a better one.
When Caesar and company discover the secret military base, they see the Colonel has kidnapped all of Caesar’s tribe. They attempt to free them only to have Caesar caught as well. We are then treated to an ape version of The Great Escape.
When you copy moments from other movies but don’t fashion them in your own image, the impact fades. It’s odd to call this movie lazy because obviously so much work went into it, except apparently the script. Reeves is a talented director. He manages to pull off a technically astounding achievement. The problem is the whole thing feels like a technical exercise and not a movie.
The original Planet of the Apes franchise, while campy by today’s standards, is still a well-told, thought-provoking parable. They were satires. They never took themselves too seriously because how could you? The script by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson poked fun at human civilization while also asking questions about how we structure our society. Its ultimate question was this: are we so smart we will be the cause of our own demise? But the movie never behaved as if it was cribbing from your philosophy instructor; it had fun, it played around with us.
War for the Planet of the Apes seems to think the idea of apes on horses wielding guns is cool. It misunderstands the fundamental purpose of the original movies. The imagery is surreal and jarring, but in Reeves’s hands it’s meant to be awe inspiring. Maybe it would have been, but the movie doesn’t have the imagination to live up to Reeves’s hopes.
The further away I get from the movie, the less I like it. The emotional moments, while earned, don’t land right. There’s a slight curve to the movie, and it never straightens itself out. The real problem though is simple: War for the Planet of the Apes has no interest in anything other than itself.