Like the cinematic equivalent of the ‘evolution of man’ graphic, each installment of the Planet of the Apes prequels has stood that bit taller than the last in terms of scope and ambition, as the franchise inches closer to the simian supremacy of Charlton Heston’s sixties space odyssey. 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes remains a stunning achievement in summer film-making, thanks to its expectation-defying mix of tragic fraternal conflict, lush botanic texture and a totally compelling hero. On Andy Serkis’ conflicted, motion-captured face was writ large the practical limits of Caesar’s longed-for apetopia and its non-violent covenant. Its director, Matt Reeves, returns for War for the Planet of the Apes, sweeping the board for the ape’s Moses-like role as a founder of civilisation, and Reeve’s sharp visual eye has helped solidify the trilogy’s place in the modern blockbuster hall of fame. But there is also something a little exhausted and uncertain about the closing chapter, whose storytelling struggles to meet the momentousness of the occasion.
Like the title says, it’s war. A decade after Dawn, the simian flu has eradicated most of the planet’s human population; the ruined American landscape is dotted with surviving bipedal paramilitaries under the command of a mad, nameless, consciously Kurtzian ‘The General’ (Woody Harrelson). The apes’ colony, hidden deep in forest growth, has become increasingly compromised, as The Colonel’s forces, assisted by ape turncoats branded ‘donkeys’ by their new masters, close in on the settlement. Opening with a roving, tense, behind-the-shoulder shot of camo mercenaries stalking through greenery, helmets marked with ‘Monkey Killer’ and similar monikers, the atmosphere of War echoes the ‘war is hell’ Vietnam genre that prompted the Viet Kong punning of Dawn’s reviews.
After a devastating personal loss for Caesar, he sets off with a small crew to locate the soldiers’ military base and make The General pay. The frontier geography — flat ground nursed by snowy mountains — and the locomotive imagery of horsebound alpha males frame Caesar’s mission as a snarling revenge Western, the minimalist scenery providing melancholic rhythms and a bracing visual austerity. Along the way they adopt a young, orphaned mute (Amiah Miller), pretty little girls becoming a standard marker for end-of-the-world innocence. The genre riffing goes beyond Apocalypse Now-style war movies to Holocaust imagery and jaunty escape procedurals, as the apes become imprisoned in cruel labour camps, draped in the fascist flags of The Colonel’s cultish following. Its commitment to formal excellence makes War one of the most audacious and technically polished blockbusters in recent memory, even as it fails to match the emotional resonance of the cinematic epics it’s aping. At times it’s a little monkey see, monkey do.
The finale’s explosive melee notwithstanding, War isn’t much interested in combat, or at least in the default catharsis of triumphant war-making, preferring to poke around in auxiliary questions of mercy, guilt and the insanity of species on the brink. Unlike most Hollywood blockbusters, it is interested in tricky questions of action and ethics, but is muddy when it comes to answers, the limits to its reach becoming clearer as the ending approaches.
In terms of sheer drama, there is nothing in War to rival Koba’s betrayal in Dawn. Caesar’s trek is sketched out in gorgeous, evocative photography, but his internal journey is less clear, his grief, guilt (Koba’s bloody face haunts him, Banquo-style) and regretful plunge into warfare signaled but not explored. Producers and writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, central to shaping the trilogy thus far, have ceded the screenplay to Mark Bomback (who contributed to Dawn) and Reeves himself. As impressive as War is, it seems the creative shift and denouement pressures have complicated the basics of arcs and stakes. What does the film think about Caesar? What does it think about us? Out in the wild white, a drift takes over, and the icy moral bleakness melts in the warm glow of new hope. Conor Smyth