Back in the early 1970s, the “Planet of the Apes” films were far more popular with moviegoers than they were with critics. Looking back, it’s not difficult to see why. The original “Planet of the Apes,” starring Charlton Heston, at least had novelty value, a certain kind of eeriness and a satiric edge, qualities that quickly disappeared as Twentieth Century Fox cranked out sequel after sequel.
The best of the bunch was “Escape from the Planet of the Apes”, in which Roddy McDowell’s Cornelius and Kim Hunter’s Zira time-travelled to 1973 America. As for “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” - let’s just say they are very much from the era that gave us mood rings and Pet Rocks. And Tim Burton’s 2001 “Planet of the Apes?” Better to pretend that never even happened.
So one of the most astonishing surprises of the last few years has been the current reboot of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise, an idea that initially sounded as lame as a Partridge Family reunion tour. The series got off to an uncertain start with the uneven “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” in 2011, but 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” directed by Matt Reeves, was considerably better. Now Reeves returns to the director’s chair for “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and the results are superb.
Reeves, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Bombeck, seems to have been inspired far less by the “Apes” movies of the 1970s than by the landmark Westerns of John Ford, particularly “The Searchers,” in which vengeful Civil War veteran John Wayne will stop at nothing to save kidnapped niece Natalie Wood from her Comanche captors. Perhaps it sounds a bit ridiculous to apply that premise to a movie in which the main characters are highly developed apes, but Reeves and his fellow filmmakers pull it off astonishingly well.
It’s not enough to say that “War for the Planet of the Apes” is far more exciting, thought-provoking and emotionally engaging than your standard summer blockbuster; better to say it’s one of the most impressive films of the year.
Reeves returns us to an unnerving vision of the future, in which apes and humans battle for control of the planet. Caesar, played by Andy Serkis, is the leader of the apes, who is walking a tricky line between protecting his followers and trying to avoid conflict. After a vicious attack on the apes’ stronghold, however, Caesar is eaten up with a desire for revenge and he begins trailing the man he blames for the assault.
But his mission will be abruptly overhauled when he discovers something even more disturbing along the way. The human soldiers pursuing Caesar have painted their helmets with slogans like “Bedtime for Bonzo,” “The only good Kong is a dead Kong” and “Endangered Species.” But those aren’t Caesar’s only enemies: He must also contend with apes who turned against him and now work for the soldiers, who refer to them as “donkeys.”
Allies are more difficult to find, yet Caesar discovers a great one in a jittery simian who calls himself Bad Ape, played by Steve Zahn. Bad Ape, formerly on display in a zoo, provides crucial information about the fate of Caesar’s family, which puts Caesar on a collision course with a demented colonel named McCullough, played by Woody Harrelson.
McCullough lives in terror of a fast-spreading virus that robs humans of their power of speech and rational thought. His solution is to build a wall to protect himself and his men from outsiders. McCullough’s eccentricities are not unlike the quirks of Colonel Kurtz, Marlon Brando’s character in “Apocalypse Now,” and the movie isn’t shy about acknowledging that. When Caesar and his band travel through an underground tunnel, they pass graffiti that spells out “Ape-pocalypse Now.”
The visual effects throughout the film are flawless, particularly the motion-capture technology that transforms Serkis, Zahn and other actors into apes, yet allows them to clearly and vividly express their emotions and attitudes. Serkis is especially terrific at communicating Caesar’s changing moods, from rage to disillusionment to fierce determination.
What’s truly astonishing, though, is Reeves’ more daring move. At least 40 percent of this 140-minute movie is either subtitled or completely devoid of dialogue. But it’s thoroughly compelling from start to finish. Filling in some of those gaps is a marvelous score by Oscar winner Michael Giacchino that punctuates the action without overwhelming it.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” wraps up this trilogy in sensational style, providing us with perhaps the only series in cinematic history that has improved from film to film. The “Apes” saga may be over, but it should be fascinating to see where Matt Reeves takes us next. Hey, if ‘70s science-fiction is his thing, maybe he could make something worthwhile out of “Logan’s Run.”