The re-rebooting of the Planet of the Apes series is the best thing to happen to sci-fi dorks since Christopher Nolan rescued Batman or J.J. Abrams got into the Star Trek and Star Wars salvage business. However edifying those films were, they were essentially there to restore first principles, and reclaim the titles in question from irresponsible minders (and/or creators).
The same could be said of the Apes franchise. And not just because of Tim Burton’s baffling 2001 Planet of the Apes reboot (the bemused semi-enjoyment of which remains one of the loneliest experiences of my moviegoing life). Long before that, Planet of the Apes v.1 was defiled by four increasingly schlocky sequels. The first two new-new Ape-scapes—Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)—were allowed to reimagine the prehistory of the original, and to repurpose the central metaphorical engine of the entire project to better correspond to the ongoing, real-life nightmare that is the decline of the human race. The latest installment, War for the Planet of the Apes, doubles down on the “Hey, stupid, this might look like the future, but it’s really about the present” vibe, for an effect that is exactly equal parts engaging and disappointing.
We enter where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes left us: An army of disease-ravaged humans squares off for a last stand against the entirely un-warlike apes for no reason other than man’s seemingly ineradicable propensity for territorial violence. The humans are led by a classic obsessed military psycho, known only as “the Colonel” and played zealously by Woody Harrelson, who’s determined to take out as many “Kongs” (get it?) as he can, if only for the sake of establishing that nature—including but not limited to kingdom animalia—is at liberty to go fuck itself.
As these prequels progress, the metaphors tend to become a bit glaring. Though an insurgent army of educated, radicalized anthropoid primates makes for an excellent notion, there’s something kind of silly about watching it ramp up into reality.
The Colonel’s war against the apes, particularly their leader, Caesar (“played” again, with astonishing nuance and emotional expansiveness, by Andy Serkis), is personal, which means the damage he inflicts upon them is personal, too. Which means that by the time the army’s initial attack is over, it will become personal for Caesar as well.
This sets the stage for a heady combination of cinematic influences to assert itself—War is equal parts Les Misérables, Apocalypse Now, The Wizard of Oz, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Lord of the Rings, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Braveheart, The Guns of Navarone, and probably several other stories of revenge, revolution, and redemption. Except this one has apes that can speak English and walk erect and are more moral than humans.
That’s where the power of the story lies, and also all the problems.
As these prequels progress, the metaphors tend to become a bit glaring. Though an insurgent army of educated, radicalized anthropoid primates makes for an excellent notion, there’s something kind of silly about watching it ramp up into reality. Which would be okay if the tone weren’t so effectively grave, or the allegorical fabric so convincingly dire.
The director of War for the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves, has an incredible skill for creating the plausibly crumbling natural world Caesar and his tribe are about to inherit. He’s also very good at balancing the necessary irony of Harrelson’s performance with the even more necessary conviction of Serkis’. Even better: Though the film is full of violence, Reeves makes every death matter to someone on-screen.
He’s less good, however, at noticing when his film overreaches with the whole “But who is the savage now?” shtick. At one point, the Colonel forces a cadre of ape POWs to build a (wait for it) wall outside his commandeered fortress. “Why do they need a wall?” one of them asks, and only barely resists looking damply into the camera at Trump’s America.
But guess what: This is Trump’s America, and Reeves makes an admirable effort to present it, and us, with a credible catastrophization of the moral and spiritual trajectory we can’t seem to fully acknowledge, much less avert. Maybe the chimp we goosed up in a lab is the perfect one to remind us that mercy is supposed to be what makes humans special. Someone better.
The film’s loyalties are clear. War for the Planet of the Apes may not be a full-blown argument for the end of the human race, but the film does make the case that if a natural or unnatural calamity befalls our species in the near-to-middle-distant future, no one will be able to say we didn’t ask for it.