War For the Planet of the Apes

Too many movies released this summer are best described as being almost-good, which is hardly enough to get excited about. On the other hand, while Matt Reeves’ “War For the Planet of the Apes” overreaches in the final stretch, it comes this-close to being a masterpiece.

The third in a trilogy that started with Rupert Wyatt’s excellent “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011) and Reeves staggering, if overwhelmingly bleak “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014), the latest and presumably last is easily the best of the bunch.

Earth is dominated by intelligent apes and mankind is mostly wiped out from a virus. The towering leader ape, Caesar (embodied by a motion captured Andy Serkis) wants to be left alone in his forest hideout, though human soldiers are constantly hunting and killing his fellow apes. Caesar’s fateful encounter with the cold, crazy Colonel (Woody Harrelson in a typically great, chilling performance) sends him on a mission of vengeance. Along the way, he discovers the state of mankind and the Colonel’s methods of controlling those damn dirty apes.

Reeves finds a perfect balance in tone, allowing the rich emotion of “Rise” and the dread of “Dawn” to coexist in a neo-western with horseback riding, gun-toting apes. This is the tough, post-modernist sci-fi western that “Logan” wanted to be and couldn’t quite pull off.

Once the third act reveals itself to be set in one location and focused on the world of Harrelson’s Colonel, the momentum halts and things get overly heavy handed. I won’t describe the visuals but there are unspoken, obvious references to WWII internment camps. As though that weren’t enough, the Colonel gives a lengthy speech with an on-the-nose biblical reference and explains how the apes are “building a wall.” I kept waiting for him to add, “…it’s gonna be a great wall, a tremendous, wall, and the apes are gonna pay for it!” He doesn’t, in a rare example of restraint. There’s also spell-it-all-out references to “Apocalypse Now,” in case we missed the blatant “Ape-pocalypse Now” site gag.

Reeves and his co-screenwriter Mark Bomback craft a great story with complex, endearing characters but should have trusted the audience to get all the political and social references without their constant nudging. Even the late, great Rod Serling, who famously concocted the legendry ending of the 1968 “Planet of the Apes,” knew how to fashion a great allegory without overdoing the talking points.

If the idea was to align this final entry with the original “Planet of the Apes” series, then something is off. While the concluding scenes are satisfying from a narrative standpoint, they don’t allow for the kind of closure and introductory notes that create an easy transition from this to the Charlton Heston-starring 1968 original. Perhaps one more “Apes” prequel would do the trick (and if this one is a blockbuster, then another prequel is all but guaranteed).

As in the prior entries, the visual effects are so good, you’ll forget quickly that you’re looking at actors whose faces and bodies are covered by CGI magic. The scenes set in the apes habitat are once again spellbinding, as are the close-ups; I always believed I was watching intelligent, evolved talking apes. While “Dawn” had an ensemble of human characters I didn’t care about (and can hardly remember three years later), the emphasis in “War” is wisely fixed on the ape’s perspective. Although the screenplay’s ambitions aren’t fully met in the end, the level of achievement in a filmmaking and visual effects is off the charts.

“War For the Planet of the Apes” eventually becomes as subtle as a political cartoon, ┬ábut there are powerful, vivid scenes throughout. In addition to Serkis’ hypnotic Caesar, another great simian performance is Steve Zahn’s funny, dazzling turn as “Bad Ape”. My favorite character overall is a soulful orangutan named Maurice, played by Karin Konoval, and Toby Kebbell reprises his terrifying Koba from the prior installment. Two movies in, I still can’t spot Judy Greer as Cornelia, though that’s kind of the point: we don’t see the actors underneath but become immersed in their characters and the world they inhabit.

While overstuffed on provocative material, Reeve’s film basks in its grand storytelling and brilliant filmmaking. There’s a lot of life left in these apes and their troubling, decades-spanning cautionary tales. To end this properly, allow me to quote a line from Troy McClure’s “Stop The ┬áPlanet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off!” musical: “I hate every ape I see, from chimpan-A, to chimpanzee…”

Four Stars

originally published in Maui Time Weekly