AFTER THE DREARY second ‘chapter’ of the (new) Planet of the Apes franchise (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”), “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a tremendous movie. It’s thoughtful, gripping, brilliantly acted and the quality of the CGI is unsurpassed.
Though it starts in a fairly typical action movie mode – guns a blazing, apes and soldiers dying in abundant heaps etc. – it soon morphs (after the capture by the apes of a few, defeated, soldiers) into a compelling drama.
It’s been fifteen years since the dawn of the Simian flu, which has resulted in a decimation of the human race and the flowering of simian intellect. The ape leader, Caesar (convincingly embodied by Andy Serkis…the genius who gave us Golum) is keen to avoid war and the ongoing skirmishes with humans. His plans are, like Moses, to lead his beleaguered tribe out of this Pharaonic war zone to a promised land, way over yonder, past an impassible (to humans) desert. This is the first of multiple Biblical and Greek mythological references (There’s even a frightening Red Sea moment when, like Ramses’ armies, Caesar’s tormentors are drowned in a deluge of snow and ice).
But his bête noir, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), the bald, buff, increasingly deranged Kurtz- like leader of a Nazi-esque troop of rogue mercenaries, is intent on enslaving the apes (“They’re almost human” one of his mercenaries says…in an echo of the Christian apologia for slavery) before wiping them out. The Uncle Toms of this brave new world are turncoat apes, called Donkeys. They’ve turned against their own to save their own skins and will perform any task no matter how demeaning.
The story twists and turns (including a thrilling “Great Escape” segment, as the apes tunnel through forgotten caverns in the quiet dark of the night) as it explores themes of slavery and freedom, mercy and vengeance, heroism and sacrifice.
And it all hangs around the grand, epic character of Caesar as he faces a personal challenge deeper than that of the Colonel’s mercenaries: his desire for vengeance. His people need the calm command of his leadership; but his dark, brooding heart drives him away from the leader’s responsibility as the protector of his clan to the hunter’s lonely quest to kill and destroy. His drive to survive long enough to rid the world of the Colonel is fueled by pure unbridled hate. (I am reminded by the exchange between Quintus Arrius – Jack Hawkins – and Judah Ben Hur – Charlton Heston – in “Ben Hur”. “You are full of hate,” Quintus tells Ben Hur. “That is good. Hate can keep a man alive”)
But in the end, it is the touching generosity of a young, mute girl (Amiah Miller), and a Messianic survival of crucifixion, that soothes the savage beast within. Spartacus turns into Henry V. Or maybe Christ. Hate, tenderness, rage, sorrow, joy. The little miracle of director Matt Reeves’ movie (he also co-wrote it) is how clearly these emotions play across Serkis’ ape visage. You feel for him in ways way beyond the faux emotions of the summertime blockbusters. Here on a planet of apes is the crisis of modern humanity writ large.
Reeves’ noble and very iconic vision (Imagine rows of crucified apes dying in their own Appian Way or chained, slave-whipped apes brutalized by their heartless overlords) is well served by the dark, atmospheric cinematography of Michael Seresin (“Dawn of the Planet…”, “Midnight Express”) and James Chinlund’s (“Dawn…, “Avengers Assemble”) convincing post apocalyptic world.
What a surprise to find such a gem among this year’s even more mindless blockbusters: “The Transformers”, “The Mummy”, “Alien: Covenant”, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Guardians of the Galaxy. Vol2”.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Dir: Matt Reeves. Writers: Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback (“Insurgent”, “Wolverine”). With: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller. Cinematpgraphy: Michael Seresin. Production Design: James Chilund. Music: Michael Giacchino (“Star Trek Beyond”)