The third in the new series of features derived from Planet of the Apes, War for the Planet of the Apes is unusually brave for a megabudget “franchise” entertainment. Director Matt Reeves (who co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Bomback) has created a bleak, heavily allusive saga of rancid imperialism, and in telling it from the point of view of the brilliant ape leader Caesar (a computer-enhanced Andy Serkis), he has made humans psychotic and apes (gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees), for lack of a better word, humanistic. The dialogue is relatively spare — two apes can speak, but the rest communicate via sign language — and Reeves holds his shots a long time to ally his heroes with the sublime natural landscape (and maybe to show off the awesome apes). The movie doesn’t come together, though. It’s not especially involving, let alone fun.
It’s worth remembering how far we’ve come from Pierre Boulle’s novel, an amusing Gulliver saga in which the monkey planet isn’t Earth but its fun-house mirror: Humans became dull-wittedly complacent while more dexterous apes began to reason with acuity, eventually doing experiments on humans to understand their own evolutionary origins. In the tumultuous 1960s, writers Michael Wilson and Rod Serling recognized the potential for a civil-rights parable in which a white patriarch (Charlton Heston) finds out what it is like to be the subjugated race. The new saga began with an inadvertently human-created virus that killed most humans while enhancing apes’ cognitive abilities. In War, we learn the epidemic has removed from some human survivors the power of speech. Humans are de-evolving, and now a rogue colonel is trying to forestall the process by wiping out both the evolved apes and the de-evolved humans.
The big joke here is that Reeves has remade Apocalypse Now with apes in place of the Viet Cong. Soldiers refer to them as “the Kong” (heh), and you can half-glimpse on a tunnel wall the scrawl APE-POCALYPSE now (heh-heh). Woody Harrelson is doing Brando’s Kurtz, shaving his head and speaking in a high, childlike voice. Apes are found crucified outside the colonel’s compound. Inside, Caesar and his tribe are worked to death, building a fortress to keep out an invading human military force (which will presumably be led by Captain Willard under orders to exterminate with extreme prejudice). The final Caesar-colonel confrontation is unexpectedly messy and grueling.
You can’t fault the film technically — apart from Caesar’s smooth, youngish voice, which lacks distinction and doesn’t fit with his hoary exterior voice. The apes’ facial movements are beautifully detailed, and individual apes move at different speeds and with sundry ranges of movement. Steve Zahn is aboard (virtually) as a comic-relief chimp; there’s a mute, blue-eyed little blonde human girl for pathos. A moral dimension is introduced by those apes who are collaborating with the humans, among them a fearsome gorilla who once opposed peaceful coexistence with people in defiance of the peacenik Caesar.
But Reeves doesn’t earn his Apocalypse Now pretensions. The mysterious jungle landscapes that, for Francis Coppola (and, in a different context, Werner Herzog), are meant to reinforce humans’ distance from the natural world serve no dramatic purpose here, and the pacing is so ponderous that it’s hard to stay focused on the narrative. War for the Planet of the Apes manages to be both alienating and sappy, and the biblical finale seems to come from a different universe altogether. It’s an awesome, dull movie.
*This article appears in the July 10, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.