I’m floored by “War for the Planet of the Apes.” It has been a point of contention among critics as to why a blockbuster such as this one should be so grave, serious and grim. But the ambition it takes to make a film about talking chimps so emotional, gripping and moving is staggering. That more Hollywood movies don’t strive to evoke “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Platoon” is a war crime. The horror, indeed.
This “Planet of the Apes” prequel trilogy has been an exercise in madness. Slowly we’ve seen Caesar grow and evolve from being a precocious and smart monkey in “Rise” to having the motion capture technology fully capture Andy Serkis’s simmering rage and intensity. “Dawn” opened with the apes living peacefully in the woods, building a society as human civilization has crumbled. Now that’s gone, and director Matt Reeves has put in its place a bleak fight for survival.
A stealth attack on Caesar and the ape hideout has left his wife and oldest son dead at the hands of a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson). Harrelson’s shaved head and painted face evokes the insanity of Willard rising from the swamp in “Apocalypse Now.” In the opening scene, you’re already breathing heavy with dread. Reeves’s camera glides silently overhead, a witness to the horrors of war. A gorilla places his giant hand on a human soldier from behind, but rather than a surprise attack, we learn that certain apes have sworn over their dignity to the humans in exchange for their lives. They’re now labeled and literally branded “donkeys,” forced to fetch ammo and weapons as the humans eradicate their brothers. It’s grim and tragic rather than merely empty, cathartic action.
Reeves doesn’t shoot “War” with the kinetic movement or editing of a traditional action movie. The cinematography by Michael Seresin moves in a slow glide and holds shots with painful clarity. It’s patient but not without vigor or style, as in a dark, cavernous shot as Caesar attacks a covert soldier, an image that evokes “Sicario” or “Zero Dark Thirty.”
And this searing visual style serves Reeves well as Caesar and his traveling party comes across a young, mute girl (Amiah Miller). She looks long and deep into the eyes of the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and you can sense the bond they share of a common tortured past. So much of “War” is communicated through these longing stares, as the apes mostly speak through sign language. It’s remarkable how quiet and sobering Reeves makes each moment.
And Michael Giacchino’s score is responsible for much of the heavy lifting. Even as the explosions begin, Giacchino keeps the tone largely somber rather than with booming percussion. He evokes range and emotional swells while maintaining the film’s quiet intensity.
The first “Apes” film “Rise” displayed the most ingenuity, with a fresh take on CGI combat and Caesar gradually showing more intelligence and power. “Dawn” provided the best in action, with apes riding on horseback in slow motion through hellfire, machine guns blazing. And it all ended in a simian battle royale. “War” nods to those films’ strengths, but it’s the most psychologically thoughtful of the trilogy.
Since the 1968 “Planet of the Apes,” people have discussed the franchise’s racial implications. “War” deepens the burden placed on humanity. The Colonel is sadistic and mad, and images of apes splayed on crosses reveal humanity’s cruelty and disregard toward nature. But for people who have seen the original film, we know how this ends. Humans subvert to animals and lose what made them human in the first place. “We become your cattle,” the Colonel says to Caesar. We both just want survival.
Reeves elevates the sci-fi parable by making Caesar into Moses rather than a Roman emperor. The Colonel has enslaved apes and tortured them, and in the end we witness Biblical images of Caesar leading his people on an Exodus-like journey to the Promised Land. This is magnificent, stirring imagery, and however depressing watching “War” can be, Reeves’s achievement is making this story worthy of those lofty proportions.