‘War for the Planet of the Apes’
Director: Matt Reeves
Stars: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson
3 (out of 5) Globes
The original “Planet of the Apes” movies were meant for kids, but they weren’t dumb. They were arguably the most political and radical Hollywood product of the era, steeped in Civil Rights lingo and imagery. The fourth one, “Conquest,” even ended with what was effectively a slave revolt. Amazingly, the new rebooted series isn’t as ostentatiously woke. These films are dour and serious and long, but not even the new “War for the Planet of the Apes” speaks directly to our times, the way the originals threw in nods to Vietnam and Malcolm X. Then again, it’s very 2017 in one way: This is a franchise in which humans are so belligerent and dumb the whole species might as well eat it.
When last we left the new “Apes” saga, human-smart ape relations had escalated but reached a detente. That’s gone by the time “War” picks up. Apart from a mysteriously mute little girl (Amiah Miller), there are no token reasonable humans, like the ones played by Jason Clarke and Keri Russell in “Dawn.” Nearly the only homo sapiens we see are soldiers, led by Woody Harrelson’s “The Colonel.” He knows humans, plagued with a now-mutating virus, are on the way out, and he’ll be damned if some damn dirty apes are going to take our place. So he tries to kill the chimp who started the revolution, Andy Serkis’s mo-capped Caesar. Instead, he kills his wife and son by accident.
Title aside, there’s very little war in “War.” After a grimy battle opener, it segues into a dirty revenge Western, only to settle into a POW camp drama. The normally focused Caesar loses himself to imploding grief, abandoning his tribe for a mission to find and execute The Colonel with extreme prejudice. There’s a fair amount of “Apocalypse Now” running through “War,” including with “The Colonel,” who’s basically Kurtz only less charming. But these aren’t empty fanboyish shout-outs, as in another recent simian-led blockbuster, “Kong: Skull Island.” That film openly quoted famous shots; returning series director Matt Reeves, who also helmed “Dawn,” doesn’t do that. He’s simply made a film that wants to be taken as seriously as the Coppola classic.
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Still, “Apocalypse Now” is definitely more fun. “War” is about as heavy as “Dawn.” Even the monkey mayhem is po-faced. There are few jokes, and one of them is a super-dumb gag about looking through binoculars the wrong way, which even your corny grandfather would find too corny. (A shout-out, though, to Steve Zahn, who, as a traumatized ex-zoo chimp, seems to be doing a spot-on impersonation of the great Elisha Cook Jr.) The ultra-mega-seriousness isn’t always matched by the writing; most of the characters are thin, even poor Caesar, whose need for vengeance starts to feel like a way to keep the plot going, not something bubbling underneath him.
Still, this is Serkis’ finest yet turn as Caesar. He mostly sticks to a hard glower that sometimes descends into a Malcolm McDowell-in-“A Clockwork Orange” stare. But it feels real, feels disturbing, as though his insides had been eaten out. If the script sometimes feels sloppy, one draft away from gold, the technical chops remain aces; watch how cinematographer Michael Seresin uses every part of the wide Cinemascope frame, doesn’t always plop things in the center. Far as this year’s downer franchise entries go, it’s far less smug and more deeply-felt than “Logan” — even if some of us may pine for the days when films about revolutionary monkeys were fun as well as harrowing.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge