Film Review: ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’

War for the Planet of the
YouTube screenshot

Like the apes it depicts, the technology behind the 'Planet of the Apes' prequels has evolved to act more human than the human characters.

In the original “Planet of the Apes” movies, Caesar and his simian co-stars were buried beneath layers of prosthetic makeup, severely limiting their ability to emote. In Fox’s recently rebooted “Apes” trilogy (three and counting), the computer-generated chimps appear more human than the homo sapiens — which is clearly what the series has been working up to. In purely technical terms, director Matt Reeves more than achieves that goal, although it requires rigging the screenplay and reducing the human characters to crass two-dimensional stereotypes in the process.

Dawn has risen, and “War for the Planet of the Apes” picks up at a point where the world has been divided into two camps: those deeply impressed by all that directors Rupert Wyatt and Reeves have done with the franchise, and those who couldn’t care less. If you already find yourself on the side of the “Apes” enthusiasts (a fittingly militant lot), then “War” will likely be a mind-blowing experience, upping the ante via both its bleeding-edge visual effects and the grim self-seriousness of Reeves’ approach. But not everyone is eager to cheer the annihilation of their own species — or to be told that we’ve squandered our time here on earth and that it’s time to turn the planet over to a more evolved species.

As in episodes one through three of the “Star Wars” franchise, Reeves is operating in revisionist-prequel mode, filling in the calamitous backstory that leads to a depressing present reality — except that in this case, he’s less concerned with mythology, approaching this chapter as an elaborate homage to such manly classics as “The Great Escape,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Apocalypse Now,” starring monkeys. For better or worse, the result is the most impressive anthropomorphic-animal adventure since “Chicken Run” — although impressiveness alone does not a good movie make.

In fact, “War” so desperately wants to inspire awe that Reeves and DP Michael Seresin (shooting on the large-format, ultra-hi-def Alexa 65) design every shot of the film as if it were a painting intended for the Louvre, getting the composition and lighting to look just perfect, often at the expense of the underlying narrative. Whereas 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (directed by Wyatt) offered a cautionary tale about genetic engineers playing God, and Reeves’ 2014 follow-up “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” coincided with growing racial unrest (somewhat problematically equating apes to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.), “War” fails to delivery a functional allegory.

Following a brutal prologue in which a team of human soldiers stumbles across a group of apes patrolling on horseback, the film abruptly switches sides, opting to identify with the misunderstood primates, led by Caesar (played by motion-capture maestro Andy Serkis), our hyper-intelligent chimp hero. The villain here is a human known only as “the Colonel” (Woody Harrelson), who sneaks into Caesar’s waterfall hideout to murder his wife and child in cold blood. The attack doesn’t make much strategic sense, costing the Colonel’s team more damage than he inflicts, and yet it’s certainly stunning to behold, as the human soldiers’ green-laser scopes pierce the darkness of Caesar’s base. More importantly, this tragic encounter gives Caesar a chance to emote — in extreme close-up, no less — as Reeves’ virtual camera studies his face, ensuring that Serkis’ every micro-expression reads loud and clear on his all-digital avatar.

Visual effects technology has come mind-bogglingly far since “Rise,” where the crew concentrated nearly all of its energy on rendering a single simian character, Caesar. In “Dawn,” Caesar was but one of an elaborate monkey ensemble, including different species who squabbled and fought among themselves. In that film, Caesar made a big deal about rejecting violence and trying to establish some kind of harmony between man and monkey. Now, he tosses all that wisdom out the window and sets out on a revenge mission, determined to make the Colonel pay for his crimes.

It’s a terrible idea, both practically (Caesar is completely outmanned) and in narrative terms, considering that “War’s” final scene reveals a solution where they might have avoided violence altogether by striking out to colonize what looks like an untouched expanse of National Park land. But Reeves is determined to do things his way, which means orchestrating a man-vs.-monkey conflict epic enough to justify the movie’s “War” title — represented by a gruesome concentration camp where apes are enslaved and later decimated by machine-gun fire (violence that would tip the film into “R” territory if it were directed at humans).

Rounding up a small band of loyal supporters — including fellow chimp Rocket (Terry Notary), right-hand orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and sensitive gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) — Caesar sets off on a cross-country mission that takes him through snow-covered landscapes. Along the way, they discover a stunted zoo escapee known as “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn, providing this grim film’s only comic relief) and a human orphan named Nova (Amiah Miller), rendered mute by the Simian Flu. As such, her linguistic skills lag far behind her animal saviors, and yet, she’s the only human who seems to accept the apes, a few of whom can speak (in long, drawn-out sentences that make for tedious dialogue scenes), while the others communicate via a combination of ape sounds and sign language.

For blocking purposes, Caesar nearly always has his back to whoever is signing — another indication that photoreal facial expressions seem to matter more to Reeves than the emotional truth behind them. In scene after scene, he lingers on Caesar’s face, encouraging us to marvel at the nuance of Serkis’ performance, as if every virtual tic and twitch reveals the character’s profound humanity — when in fact, it’s Harrelson’s cartoonishly over-the-top turn as the Colonel that makes Caesar seem so subtle by comparison. It’s fitting that the visual effects have advanced so dramatically since 2011, as it allows the series to suggest that its ape protagonists have evolved to an equivalent degree, and yet, “War’s” story is beneath their intelligence.

Reeves asks us to empathize with Caesar on a quest that defies everything the character has previously stood for, then gives him an easy way out when it finally comes time to exact his revenge. Likewise, he promises a war movie, then delivers a show-stopping avalanche at precisely the moment both sides are expected to do battle. By quoting from some of cinema’s best adventure movies, Reeves has safely satisfied the fanboy contingent, and yet the ease with which he eradicates the human race betrays an alarming soullessness that even the most pixel-perfect performance-capture can’t excuse.

Film Review: 'War for the Planet of the Apes'

Reviewed at Fox Studios, June 21, 2017. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 142 MIN.

Production

A 20th Century Fox release presented in association with TSG Entertainment of a Chernin Entertainment production. Producers: Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver. Executive producers: Mark Bomback, Mary McLaglen. Co-producer: Ryan Stafford.

Crew

Director: Matt Reeves. Screenplay: Reeves, Mark Bomback, based on characters created by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver. Camera (color, widescreen): Michael Seresin. Editors: William Hoy, Stan Salfas. Music: Michael Giacchino.

With

Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Amiah Miller, Judy Greer, Max Lloyd-Jones, Devyn Dalton.

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  1. bobtheaxolotl says:

    The only thing soulless here is you, unmoved by a ridiculously well put-together film, which brings its characters to life in a way that isn’t just a technological wonder, but a tremendous artistic achievement. The pacing is masterful, the cinematography gorgeous, the story simple, but effective, and the performances excellent.

    There’s a reason every single other review disagrees with your assessment; you’re wrong.

  2. spacefive says:

    “and yet the ease with which he eradicates the human race betrays an alarming soullessness that even the most pixel-perfect performance-capture can’t excuse.”

    Wow, this review is bad. Talk about an over-the-top response.

  3. Mazza says:

    Excellent film except no-one at my local cinema thought about letting people know that the first half of the film, (due to the fact Maurice cannot speak) is subtitled. It would be nice if every cinema showed an audio descriptive version. Many children suffer from dyslexia and many people are partially sighted. May be some kind of warning should be put on the film. The enjoyment of the film was taken away from my grandson for this reason. If I had known it was subtitled so much I would have tried to find an audio descriptive version. Otherwise the film was really enjoyable.

  4. Spot on review. 95% on Rotten Tomatoes is just laughable. I didn’t mind the first one, Dawn with James Franco but the 2nd one, Rise, was a bit of a disappointment. I think this third one, War, had its moments and of course Serkis is fabulous, but overall the film was just so-so. A lot of expositional dialogue. The only scene I really felt hooked was the one where the Colonel was talking with Caesar, explaining how he knew humans would be taken over. The original series was always about relationship between human and ape. Despite the occasional forays into morality and intelligence, and cute moments, War fell flat for me. But I’ll watch any others that are produced because I grew up on the original series and it is fun to see what they can do for special effects, make-up, CGI etc.

  5. Edward says:

    Well, besides spoiling the movie, this review also seemed to clearly show a vendetta against the director while entirely missing major plot points in the movie.

  6. jd says:

    I liked the last two films. This one disappointed me and that was mainly down to Woody Harrelson’s character. Cannot put my finger on whether that was down to how the character was written or how Harrelson played him. There were a good few confrontation scenes between his character and Ceaser but they lacked tension and authority which was mainly down to Harrelson’s character. Similar to when he was stepping out on the balcony to address the troops, again lacked authority. Shame because apart from that, the rest of the movie was good.

  7. isv says:

    By the way, are IMDB, Rotten Tomattoes and Hobby Consolas deliberately overrating some movies???….Ummmm…. Suspicious

    Well, that is ONLY my opinion…

  8. isv says:

    Well, the movie was boring. But the visual effects were perfect. This is a much better movie than the goofy and wrong kong of Skull Island, but I have to say that this movie,to me, id a big disappointment. It’s a shame, because the other two were much better movies than this one, despite the second movie was a obvious remake of the excellent James Cameron’s Avatar…

  9. James says:

    I agree there should be a spoiler warning, but this is also the only review that is right on point about this film.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Were you out of your mind when writing this review? Don’t you know how to write a review? And who made you a chief film critic? You spoiled the whole film plot even without mentioning in advance. Plz veriety show this critic the door asap.

  11. Tricia Adam says:

    Another useless Movie Critic…thank you move on…you don’t get it

  12. hamburgle says:

    Wow, what a mean-spirited little review. And nice spoiler, you miserable jerk. I guess if you can’t be happy, nobody else deserves to be either. Pathetic.

  13. jmengele says:

    A PWL is a person who is too hip for truth that might appear jarring.

  14. Nick says:

    Wow someone really does not like the director of this movie. It’s almost personal, like a breakup. I honestly couldn’t take the review seriously because of the obvious hatred the reviewer had for the director as a person. Wow. (Also, considering the review is clearly a personal smear, let Owen review it without pressure from the editorial staff?)

  15. Mark P says:

    I’m still trying to understand what you wrote. As a review, it made no sense whatsoever except to expound upon some existentialist tripe. You might want to pick up some journalism classes at a local community college and learn to write for the reader in the future. Bottom line: DID YOU ENJOY THE MOVIE?

  16. jmengele says:

    Thank you to LOCK STEP because I wrote something in the same vein and was surprised to see that, at first, mycomments were printed and then suddenly they disappeared. Thank you for your comment which tells me that I had NOT just imagined this.

    • Lock Step says:

      It’s an open secret among the producers of this series…but no one is supposed to say anything out loud about it. They can get their $10 bucks somewhere else.

  17. SalPh says:

    Do you not know how to write a pre-release review without tossing in massive spoilers? You can usually trust a professional critic/writer to know what to say and what to omit. I’ll be sure to avoid reading anything written by this “chief film critic” in the future.

    • Holly Wood says:

      This is for jmengele (seriously)?

      What is the open secret, what are the names of the producers who share it and how do you know about it?

    • Matthew French says:

      I couldn’t agree more. I immediately stopped reading the review when the fate of [SPOILER]’s [SPOILER] was revealed.

  18. Rex the Wonder Dog says:

    Too bad Tim Burton never got to do a sequel.

  19. Weary says:

    Looks outstandingly bad and stunningly pointless.

  20. Alex Johns says:

    Humans, monkeys, chimpanzees, orangoutangs, etc are PRIMATES, not apes.

  21. Lex says:

    Here’s a spoiler: It was Earth all along!

  22. Ash says:

    thanks for the spoilers a-hole, what a joke

  23. Ilan says:

    Dear Peter,
    chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas are apes, not monkeys. An intelligent reviewer such as yourself should know the difference, or at least look it up. But, hey, at least you gave away the major plot points and spoiled the ending, so there’s that.

  24. Porter says:

    Please recognize the difference between apes and monkeys, which the review throws around to insult non-human characters and those who dare to make them central characters. Humans, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas are ALL apes, which renders the title ambiguous about whose planet it really is and underscores the irony of closely-related species competing when they should be cooperating. Similarly, anthropomorphism is the attribution of exclusively human features to non-human beings, be they angels, gods, or animals. A genetically-enhanced chimpanzee is about as close to a human as possible, so the anthropomorphism jab is both facile and flawed.

  25. Mike says:

    Ummm… A SPOILER WARNING would have been nice!! I stopped reading right after you divulged some pretty pivotal details. I hope this is your last review. Variety hired an amateur.

    By the way, “Dawn” was excellent and Serkis deserves to be acknowledged as one of the greats. Looking forward to “War” (even though this dumbass at Variety pretty much ruined what could be a very emotional scene)

  26. Steve Bronn says:

    So basically (if your amateurish spoilers are to be believed) it’s as stupidly written as Dawn. Rise definitely was a fluke then.

  27. Alex Johnson says:

    Are you an amateur film critic? Way to spoil the whole movie for me, good grief that’s like basic film critic rules. I’d expect more from variety, like maybe a simple spoiler warning? I’ll be sure not to read any further movie reviews you best, d-bag.

  28. Bill B. says:

    The way the world has been lately, I don’t think I’d mind watching the elimination of my own species.

  29. Sam says:

    Cute little apes.

  30. Lisa M says:

    Definitely seeing this. The last one was terrific.

  31. millerfilm says:

    I thought that the first movie in this series was interesting, but thoroughly spoiled by the trailer giving the ending away. After that, I really didn’t care, and still don’t. The problem, as it almost always is, lies in the screenwriting, or lack thereof. Depending on your Visual Effects team to carry your whole movie is always a mistake.

    • jonathan s says:

      That seems a strange take to have, especially since you admit to not having seen the second film. It was a solid script that focused on creating “human” characters with believable motivation, and, while not perfect, it was a marked improvement on the first. Certainly, the visual effects are stellar, and the films feature some of the best motion capture performances put to screen, but that isn’t at all what the films are about. Serkis’ performance as Caeser doesn’t rely on the technology. It’s a performance that uses the technology. So I’d argue that they aren’t making the mistake you’re decrying.

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