First Kevin Spacey in “Baby Driver” then Michael Keaton in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and now Woody Harrelson: I keep forgetting how much I love certain actors until they show up on screen.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” is the third film in the reboot/prequel series and follows the final confrontation between the Apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis in motion capture), and the humans, led by a merciless Colonel (Harrelson). Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller and Gabriel Chavarria also star as Matt Reeves returns to directs.
I enjoyed the first “Planet of the Apes” reboot, “Rise,” as it was a fresh take on a worn franchise and featured a (to me, at least) always likable James Franco. Its sequel, “Dawn,” was a letdown as it was never as much fun as it should’ve been (an ape riding a horse wielding duel machine guns should be a blast) and despite its clear intentions, fell into standard blockbuster territory instead of an emotional drama. This follow-up is more of the same, as it’s visually striking but narratively weak, resulting in a middle-of-the-road, at times monotonous, experience.
As to be expected, Andy Serkis again shows why he is the king of motion capture as he plays the king of the apes. Every one of Serkis’ squints, lip quivers and growls are depicted on the face of Caesar the ape and there are scenes where you are transcended by it; I’m sure we’ll have to sit through another “give Andy Serkis his Oscar!” campaign this fall.
Woody Harrelson is the best part of the film, however, playing the iron-fisted military leader. Having lost his son to the same disease that wiped out most of humanity, Harrelson is determined to keep humans as the dominant species. He shares two fantastic scenes with Serkis where both men are at the top of their game, and makes you question what really are the traits that separate man from beast?
The film is visually constructed well, too, with Reeves again trying to use as many practical effects and sets as possible. Mostly set in a snowy military base in Northern California, there are plenty of moments of visual awe to behold. In what is basically Ape Auschwitz, Reeves sets up plenty of simple and subtle visual cues to concentration camps that I was impressed by.
However then he feared that the audience would be too stupid to understand a “Schindler’s List” reference, so he takes things one step further to ensure everyone gets that this prison is a bad place and the humans are evil. It’s this refusal to stay subtle that is one of my biggest faults with the film.
If there was a dedication to subtlety here then I would appreciate the film a whole lot more, but Reeves (who also co-wrote the script) doesn’t trust his audience to be able to understand imagery. Instead, he chooses to have Caesar have continuous hallucinations of his former ape rival to show the audience that eventually all apes (and people) fall victim to hate. Visual similarities to a Nazi concentration camp not clear enough? Let’s have the victims start getting whipped to liken things to slavery. And much like “Captain America: Civil War” there’s the overlying message that revenge is bad and won’t bring the people you love people back, no matter how much you try; children’s stuff.
The final conflict is impressive and surely where a lot of the $150 million budget went, but much like “Dawn” it’s just never as much fun as it should be.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” is going to be about as good as you thought “Dawn” was. If Serkis’ motion capture performance and the imagery of apes riding horses through a post-apocalyptic landscape is enough for you then you’ll enjoy it; but if you like films with engaging narratives and emotional payoffs, then this will be yet another disappointment.
Critics Rating: 5/10