War for the Planet of the Apes review: Matt Reeves delivers his second film in the trilogy where Caesar begins his mythic quest to avenge his kind.
War for the Planet of the Apes review, Andy Furlong.
The Planet of the Apes franchise has always managed to merge socio-political issues with gripping scintillating sci-fi from the very beginning. While the Franklin J. Schaffner original released one year before the moon landing and during the height of the Cold War conflict grappled with space exploration and the sense of impending nuclear doom that was etched in the societal psyche at the time. It still managed to craft these themes into a story that, although was influenced by these elements, they still felt secondary to a plot that had the power to capture the imagination of the viewer whether you were aware of these components or not.
War for the Planet of the Apes, the third film in the rebooted franchise, picks up amid a brutal conflict between the humans and apes triggered by the events of the previous film. It is a bloody and brutal opening that places the audience right into heart of the nihilistic senselessness of war where moral high ground has long been replaced by a sea of corpses trodden into dirt; it is powerful imagery. One of the things that has impressed me the most about the sequels to Rise of the Planet of the Apes is their desire to start in the middle of a story instead of the painstaking attempts we are usually subjected in sequels that seemingly take half the movie to establish a new plot to drive the film. One of the benefits of the Apes franchise approach is that we are invested and administered with a shot of adrenaline from the very start of the film.
We’ve watched Caesar and his companions grow for two films now, it makes sense that we start with an arc that feels like it is in its final chapter. It is a shame then that the film goes in a direction that feels like a betrayal of the character and a betrayal to the organic way in which the franchise has always constructed its socio-political themes around its spectacle and its narrative first instead of the other way around. War of The Planet of the Apes becomes structured around a revenge mission between Caeser and The Colonel, played by a menacing Woody Harrelson, that the film never fully recovers from. It is a plot contrivance that generates a lot of nonsensical events that don’t seem to work on a pacing scale and really throw the time-frame of things that happen into question, severely lessening their impact as a consequence.
In what is meant to be a pivotal scene between Caesar and The Colonel, on the wall next to them we see the phrase “History History History” scrawled on the wall in the background. It is War for the Planet of the Apes’ almost obsession with embedding unearned references from history into its story that is perhaps the most frustrating thing about it. As I mentioned earlier, the series has always managed to insert these features into a cohesive narrative and not make the defining factor in the story. War of The Planet of the Apes heavy handily references slavery, the Holocaust, and the Vietnam War, along with some nationalist imagery to boot, not to mention portraying Caesar as a Jesus Christ figure. It is iconography that, if integrated into a less forced story, would have had the devastating effect it was desperately aiming for. Instead it felt like an egregious mistake to cram in these moments at the expense of everything else and the movie suffered as a result.
That being said the film isn’t without its charms. Andy Serkis is excellent and the character of Caesar has a sense of gravitas that is always captivating even in a film that doesn’t know what to fully do with him. But after three movies we are completely invested in him and the apes’ plight by now, and that carries us through even the films most incredulous moments. The Planet of the Apes franchise has always been willing to take chances and even this film still manages to separate itself from the pack, on occasion leaving us with one iconic scene in its closing moments.
While War for the Planet of the Apes does have its moments, it is a shame that the film goes in a direction that feels like a betrayal to the organic way in which the franchise has always constructed its socio-political themes around its spectacle and its narrative first instead of the other way around.
War for the Planet of the Apes review by Andy Furlong, July 2017.
War for the Planet of the Apes opens in UK cinemas on Tuesday 11th July 2017.