Despite the obvious technical advantages of computer imagery and its visual effects, up until now, the reboot Planet of the Apes series had yet to resonate in the way the 1968 original did. Certainly, the new films are popular. There wouldn’t be a third if they weren’t. But there’s a divided audience; those eager for more, and those indifferent. Maybe it’s because the first of the reboots, fun though it was, left little impact. And the second, as accomplished a sci-fi thriller that it proved to be, ultimately suffered a similar fate: nothing left once it was done.
But now there’s a third, and from Rise, then Dawn and now War for the Planet of the Apes, there’s a difference in the telling, and it makes for one intelligent, absorbing, and thoroughly entertaining movie. This is the one the series needed, and if as an audience member you were one among the indifferent, seeing War could change attitudes; the film engages from the start.
It’s two years since the last adventure. Having formed the basis of English in the first outing where he declared, “No!”, Caesar (Andy Serkis) can now converse in the language as well as any intelligent human. And that intelligence has spread among both his immediate family and his dedicated ape followers; their speaking abilities haven’t formed to the level of their revolutionary leader but their ability to understand has, and they communicate with grunts and sign-language.
The Simian Flu virus that accidentally spread around the planet has now divided camps. On one side are the apes, growing with intelligence, while on the other with what remains of the human population, the opposite is occurring. Those exposed to the virus will likely lose their ability to speak, then ultimately lose their ability to intelligent reason. In order to stem the tide of the effect and to restore leadership on the planet, soldiers are hunting apes and killing them.
In an attack that results with the death of his wife and one of his sons, lead by a man known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), Caesar sets out on a mission of revenge, accompanied by three of his faithful; the benevolent orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval), the loyal chimpanzee, Rocket (Terry Notary) and the trustworthy gorilla, Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). The ape has learned of the whereabouts of the Colonel’s campsite, and it’s Caesar’s intention to confront him.
But as the journey across a frozen landscape continues, conflicts among the journeying apes develop as personal truths and intentions are revealed. There’s never a time when your sympathies are with anyone other than the apes, particularly Caesar, who has gone through so much pain and heartache to become the character he is. Had the chimp been human, you would certainly feel that way. The fact that he’s an ape makes little difference, particularly when Caesar’s enemy, the Colonel, is portrayed as such a villainous nutcase with an unrelenting murderous nature against all apes.
When Caesar first encounters the Colonel, the man’s face is painted in black streaks, reminiscent of Brando’s Kurtz at his nuttiest, and like that demi-god with his terrifying vigilante code, this colonel possesses his own heart of darkness, one that for reasons later explained will never see the light.
If Apocalypse Now springs to mind, so too will The Great Escape. Culminating with an exciting rescue mission regarding an encampment of slave apes worked until they’re starved, and tunnels to aid in their release while Caesar confronts the Colonel, War for the Planet of the Apes ends on a nail-biter made all the more effective because of the time invested in caring for the outcome; and there’s no predicting how it will all end – there are twists in the telling – which makes the final battle, the war of the title, all the better.
A major strength of the film is that it doesn’t rush to action. After a violent, confrontational beginning, the bulk of the story unfolds less as an action/thriller and more as a drama, drawing you in, making you care about the outcome as those four apes journey on horseback in search of the Colonel’s concentration camp.
Along the way, two well drawn and likable characters will appear, adding an overall richness to what is happening. One is another talking and slightly off-center chimpanzee who lived in a zoo before the flu broke out, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn, delivering most of the film’s intentional humor), and a sweet young, mute orphan (Amiah Miller) to whom Maurice takes a parental, protective liking. He even dubs her Nova.
While the reboot bares little to almost no resemblance in both tone and look to the original series, there are knowing, respectful nods to characters from the sixties. Caesar the revolutionary was the name given to Roddy McDowall’s character in the latter two films that concluded the original story, while Cornelius, here the name given to one of Caesar’s two sons, was the doctor’s name McDowall played in the 1968 series opener. Maurice the orangutan is an acknowledgment to the original science minister orangutan Dr. Zaius played by actor Maurice Evans, and by naming the mute child Nova, you’re immediately reminded of the mute adult female of the same name in the original, played by Linda Harrison. Their reveals are more reverent than humorous. And there’s more if you look for them.
Caesar’s other young son, Blue Eyes, was the nickname given to Charlton Heston’s astronaut, plus, look for a poster that has the quote The Only Good Ape is a Dead Ape splashed across it; it’s a variation of a quote from the original sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, spoken by a gorilla general in a rousing speech, except there the references were to humans.
The original series began with a surprise and an impact that lasted, even if the subsequent sequels lacked with each new chapter. With the reboot, the new surprise is that the series appears to be heading in the other direction; film number three is by far the superior. Like Caesar’s knowledge of the English language, things are developing into something far more intelligent than expected.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 142 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)