“War for the Planet of the Apes” (2017): Good Efforts in a Less than Great Film (Review)

When nature seems to predestine toward a fate, is there any room for nurture? War for the Planet of the Apes mounts an impressive Biblical challenge to the idea that there is no such room, but its efforts succeed more-so in conception than in execution.

The third entry of nu-Apes makes many valiant efforts in metaphor and allegory. When coupled with the strength of the acting, the results add up to a film that is certainly watchable. Sadly, War for the Apes is also undermined by some problems that keep it from matching the greatness of its predecessors.

Make no mistake: my takeaway is more positive than negative. I could sing the praises of Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, and Steve Zahn for hours. Serkis is a time-tested master at conveying character emotion through his eyes. The motion-capture work complimenting his efforts is extraordinary. Colonel McCullough (Harrelson) is the best character in this series since Will from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Bad Ape (Zahn) is a close second for the film as well. Michael Giacchino can’t top the score of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes but his quieter composition here strikes the right tone. What works best is the pacing; the film establishes intrigue well, and it only gets more interesting when the Colonel reveals himself.

War for the Apes works best examined from high, but there is quite a bit of story the movie lays out. In the two years since Koba’s war in Dawn of the Apes, Caesar and his tribe have been in hiding. His wife has given birth to another son, baby Cornelius. Upon learning of a promised land, they make plans to migrate to escape the human death squads. But before they can go, Colonel McCullough and his paramilitary unit strike at their heart. A grief-stricken Caesar, accompanied by Maurice (Karin Konoval) and two others, abandons the tribe to get revenge on the Colonel. Along the way, he discovers a girl who has lost her ability to speak, followed by more humans with the same problem.

I’ll get more into detail as I address the bigger ideas, but that’s already a lot of prequel-itis for a movie that is at heart a conclusion piece for Caesar. For a long stretch of the film, while Caesar is imprisoned and the apes are slave-laboring over the Colonel’s wall, you can feel its lag, as if it’s waiting for another Easter egg to drop that will accelerate the next set of events. This is, for sure, the right way to do Easter eggs. But while this film, more than the previous two, goes out of its way to contrast Caesar’s vision of the future with the Colonel’s, it’s missing the conflict of perspectives that made Rise and Dawn so energetic.

To put that another way, neither the apes nor Caesar himself have much of a story here. They’re caught up in bigger events and trying to navigate their way out. Caesar’s journey is filled with imagery meant to evoke the parallels of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but his “arc” consists only of his being haunted by Koba, which has only one real consequence in getting him captured and otherwise doesn’t pay off. It’s why the end feels more plot centric than character cathartic, despite all the work War for the Apes seems to think it was doing with him.

What War for the Apes sets its sights on are the political parallels of humanity’s relationship with nature. If there’s any character who has a meaningful story, it is Colonel McCulloch himself as a renegade eugenicist. His tactics echo the worst impulses of those who cheer at Trump rallies – a white-nationalist allegory so obvious that the film even showcases his men brutalizing the apes to the cue of “The Star Spangled Banner.” But apart from Nova, the Colonel is the most empathetic character in the film. He’s trapped in a world where his own species is a shell of its former self, where man’s greatest, most identity-defining asset and weapon – his mind – now risks becoming not only displaced by its own superior creation (the apes), but also devolved and deteriorated into a state of animalism. And having studied enough history, he knows full well what the apes will do to him and his kind once the simian virus has completed its next stage of work.

The Colonel’s true enemy and adversary, therefore, is not Caesar and his apes, but the rest of humanity that rejects his tactics, and whom he believes are too naïve to appreciate the peril they are in. Thus, true to the spirit of the original Planet of the Apes, the apes, nature’s chosen successors, are set to inherit the earth once the remnants of humanity blow themselves into the apocalypse. And the ending even makes that literal when the battle for the ski resort base causes an avalanche that only the apes can survive due to their ability to climb trees.

It’s hard to find fault with War for the Apes for forsaking propulsion in favor of emphasizing all this good stuff. But that’s the execution issue – this direction for story feels more contrived and forced than it does an organic outgrowth of character; the narrative doesn’t act like a vehicle for the ideas within it. It’s never made clear, for example, why the humans have their own Uncle-Tom slave apes, formally of Koba’s clan, in their employ. Equally dull is that the Colonel’s entire story is expositive instead of shown or even minimally dramatized. It’s just an elaboration conveyed in the past tense to Caesar so the movie can keep with him, but all Caesar does in the film is react to everyone and everything else.

The result is twofold. For one, the Old and New Testament/Moses and Jesus metaphors for Caesar feel more like products of circumstance than truly inspired. For two, the final action spectacle just wraps up plot digressions rather than make efforts to build an emotionally satisfying character conclusion. The movie rings a little hollow for it, even with how good it looks. But the look and sound really shouldn’t be understated. War for the Apes employs special effects and musical subtleties in the actual service of its story, which even Marvel can’t always be bothered to do.

Whatever you take from this, don’t let it be that War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t worth your time or money; it’s worth both, if for no other reason than to marvel at the motion capturers. Having this be the worst film in your reboot trilogy is like having coffee as the worst ice cream flavor in your sundae. I’ve heard some criticize the title for being misleading, but I actually think it fits, namely because of the word ‘for.’ The war is what the humans are fighting amongst themselves for a planet that effectively no longer belongs to them. Nature has supplanted us; thus the fight is for the soul of humanity, which now resides in the apes.

I just wish monkey could’ve seen and monkey could’ve done better, just like last time.

Overall: 6.8/10

Written By Vivek Subramanyam

Vivek is a handsome, talented, well-spoken political aficionado and part-time film critic who totally never ever writes mini-bios about himself.

Follow him on Twitter @VerverkS or check out his blog V for Verbatim.

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