**1/2 out of ****
(for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, language, and some disturbing images)
Released: July 14, 2017
Runtime: 140 minutes
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Karin Konoval
About halfway through Jurassic Park, during the initial island tour the invited scientists had seen nothing but jungle, and not any of the genetically resurrected beasts as advertised. Dr. Ian Malcolm goaded host John Hammond by asking, “Ah, now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your…on your dinosaur tour, right?”
Watching War for the Planet of the Apes, I felt like asking director Matt Reeves the same question, except to replace “dinosaur” and “tour” with “war” and “movie”.
As we all know, Malcolm and the others eventually got more than they bargained for with the dinos. But here, the war never comes.
War Movies arrive with basic expectations in tow: armies, battles, and strategizing, across large landscapes and staged through multiple sequences. When you throw the word “Planet” in the title, you’d even assume all of those things would be played out on a global scale.
But after exhilarating forest clash intro between Apes and Man, those things never materialize. Instead, in a story that would be more accurately titled Prison on the Planet of the Apes, the three-act structure goes from trek to prison camp to prison break.
It ultimately never amounts to much, and occasionally it’s a slog.
War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t nearly as compelling or provocative as the general raves and 94% Tomatometer would suggest, falling far short of the sci-fi concept’s vast thematic potential. Sure, there’s some taught Hollywood action here on the fleeting occasions the film goes there, but for a movie largely predicated on character moments the script doesn’t offer any that are particularly fascinating.
Caesar, the leader of the evolving apes (and lone English speaker; the rest talk through sign), is little more than a basic archetype, as are the rest of the supporting characters. Beyond the one-note whispering intensity of Andy Serkis (and the same ever-present scowl he offers the animators), Caesar makes for an unexpectedly selfish leader, driven strictly by a personal grudge and vengeful impulses, putting his vindictive mission ahead of what’s best for his species. Caesar rightly recognizes this as a flaw, but the film never adequately fills the protagonist gap that’s left.
Woody Harrelson fares better as the object of Caesar’s hatred, but his vicious Colonel is intriguing in spite of how he’s written, elevated by what Woody brings to it rather than what he’s given.
Scene after scene strives to make an emotional impact but many breathe way too much in the attempt, desperate for an elusive poignancy. The cumulative effect creates an experience that’s a lot more static than the title suggests.
For as ambitious as aspects of it are, War for the Planet of the Apes is lugubriously generic. It never earns anything it’s going for, right down to the Moses/Exodus parallel that can’t even successfully parlay into cheap sentiment.
Dialogue is flat, too, and ideas are thin. The biggest question this bloated work of self-import posits is the most obvious – “Who are the real animals here?” – so don’t hold your breath for anything thought-provoking. Reeves’ strength is aesthetic, not storytelling.
Furthermore, the Humans are slowly being wiped out by a dogged unstoppable virus. The very presence of the people-only virus within the story undercuts the whole, making this primal drama a bunch of unnecessary nonsense with a built-in outcome.
It’s all surprisingly uninspired, conventional in its beats and what it borrows from other, better movies. The lone distinction here – and it’s not an inconsequential one – is that the Ape animation is second-to-none in the world of visual effects technology and execution. Detailed in its minutiae and seamlessly blended into each environment, these apes always feel like real creatures living in a real world. No other major studio tentpole or franchise comes close.
Props, too, to composer Michael Giacchino, whose score is effectively eerie, moody, percussive, and tense, with homages to Jerry Goldsmith’s original 1968 landmark work.
But other than that, wow, what a shallow, hollow shell of a movie this is, one that some have hailed as a profound final chapter to one of the great film trilogies of all time. Such hyperbole is both overblown and revisionist. The Planet of the Apes reboot saga has barely been of consequence in its own era, making it even more difficult to imagine this three-movie arc enduring in the imaginations of future generations.