Review: 'War for the Planet of the Apes' Is a Ruthless, Emotional Epic

Friday, 07 July 2017 - 3:37PM
War for the Planet of the Apes
Friday, 07 July 2017 - 3:37PM
Review: 'War for the Planet of the Apes' Is a Ruthless, Emotional Epic
Image credit: 20th Century Fox
War for the Planet of the Apes lets everyone know exactly what war it wants to be from the first scene: this is Full Metal Jacket with gorillas. But the truth is that it's really not about war—Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a better war movie than this, even as it clocked its hours as a kind of post-apocalyptic disaster movie. But that's fine, because War ends up being about a lot more than a Vietnam War with chimps.

I swear to God I won't make a "guerilla warfare" joke.



When Dylan Clark and Matt Reeves talked about War for the Planet of the Apes last year, they called it a cross between a Clint Eastwood Western and a Biblical tale. After watching the movie, however, it's clear that Western-style revenge story morphed quickly into an ape-themed Apocalypse Now, with Woody Harrelson as Kurtz. There's punchy anarchic slogans seemingly spray-painted on every surface of his camp (including a big 'Ape-pocalypse Now!' in the sewers, just in case you didn't get the references), but Harrelson's Colonel is actually one of the least believable or fleshed-out characters in the movie—his emotional arc is almost topped by Caesar's nameless jailer gorilla. Whereas Colonel Kurtz had a magnetic presence and a strong argument for his insanity, it's clear Harrelson is just doing an impression. His scenes with Caesar feel generally underwhelming, and his soldiers barely have any screentime or menace after the second half.

Compare that to Caesar's crew. Maurice the orangutan is the emotional core of the movie, despite speaking only in sign language, and the motley band Caesar assembles by the midpoint of the film, including the young, mute Nova and the comic relief Bad Ape, are bursting at the seams with camaraderie, quiet dignity, and empathy. We spend a good portion of the movie just watching Caesar interact with his brethren and planning their next move, and though they emote like a combination of apes and humans, with shrieks and coos, it never feels like we're among animals. The slow pacing and subtle characterization makes you cherish the quiet moments and root for the apes to survive, even more so than the remaining human civilians.



The plot has its problems. Early on, Caesar decides to abandon his people and his son to go after the Colonel and his soldiers with nothing more than a horse and a shotgun, which seems like a plan with zero chance of success even for a distraught hero. At one point, Caesar is captured and forced into labor along with fellow apes, despite his captors' knowledge that the one thing Caesar does really well is galvanize oppressed apes. There's a point where Nova literally walks into the Colonel's enemy camp without any attempt at subterfuge, and not a single patrolling soldier sees her get in or out. There's the sense that the writers were hoping we'll just go with it, and damn it if they aren't right.

If War for the Planet of the Apes does one thing, it teaches you how much sadness, rage, and anguish you can feel in one chimpanzee's face. And that's kind of a microcosm for the whole film: if Rise and Dawn were movies about humans dealing with apes, War is told fully from the apes' perspectives, meaning that there's a lot conveyed without words. Instead, there's sign language, grunting, hooting, and expressions. Brilliantly, this ends up making the apes' struggles much more visceral and sympathetic, rather than hog-tying it. War is a story told in broad emotional strokes, but powerful ones: survival, revenge, death, and empathy. It all hammers home the central point that the apes may be more human than the humans they're fighting.

War for the Planet of the Apes hits US theaters July 14th, 2017.
Science Fiction
Sci-Fi Movies
War for the Planet of the Apes
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