As with its immediate predecessors, I admire the franchise film War for the Planet of the Apes for attempting to instill weightier themes into its high-concept hook. Also in accordance with the other offerings since the reboot was rebooted — Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — the new film isn’t quite as profound or moving as it aspires to be.
When War for the Planet of the Apes begins, the hyper-evolved simians led by a chimpanzee named Caesar (Andy Serkis, continuing his reign as the master of motion capture acting) are still holding down their outpost in the woods, despite the fervent efforts of a human military unit led by a fuming figure known mainly as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). While Caesar insists he wants only peace — sparing a group of human soldiers who were taken captive after a battle, for example — his patience for detente is sorely tested when a raid on the ape camp leaves some of his loved ones dead. In a heartbreaking moment, vengeance asserts its appeal.
And the plot moves along with assurance if not urgency. There are unique twists here and there, but too much of the narrative is rigid enough to repel any deeper emotional attachment. Perhaps the key example of this is a traveling cadre of simian soldiers becoming caretakers of a young human girl (Amiah Miller). What’s presumably meant to provide another layer of feeling to the proceedings — to up the stakes — instead feels mechanical, a way to set up the casting of a name twenty-something actress in a fourth installment someday.
About the only addition that makes a notable impression is the introduction of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a zoo escapee chimpanzee who has the same facility for speech as Caesar, though equipped with a more limited vocabulary (which smartly align’s with the character’s history). In that instance, the main appeal is the comic relief the character provides, a highly welcome development in otherwise grim proceedings. Even the positive element calls attention to the clicking motors of the storytelling.
Director Matt Reeves – who handled the same duties on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — knows how to balance his visuals between the blessedly straightforward and grandly striking. He also manages to drive home the highly cynical themes about the ugliness of organized humanity without lapsing into the didactic. It’s not every summer blockbuster that’s going to include the sight of militarized Americans engaged in vicious oppression while “The Star Spangled Banner” plays over tinny speakers. I can’t deny that War for the Planet of the Apes has a backbone.
But I also can’t deny that War for the Planet of the Apes left me a little cold. It offers a reminder that injecting franchise filmmaking with heated intent doesn’t automatically stretch sturdy bridges over the built-in pitfalls of a cinematic corner more hungry for dollars than art.