This review contains spoilers.
It is a curious thing when a movie strikes you as a little ‘off’. On a first viewing it’s not easy to know why. And of course, a first impression is sometimes thrown out by repeat viewings, should you ever decide to go back.
There’s no doubt that War for the Planet of the Apes is epic, serious and beautiful. Accomplished technically and aesthetically, it draws into its fantasy scenario contemporary (and perhaps timeless) themes of war, political betrayal and collaboration, racial and cultural intolerance, fear of the other, of imaginary contagion carried by the other (the neo-Nazis and alt-right who marched in Charlottesville on August 12-13th may well have heard Trump’s slogan as ‘Make America Clean Again’), along with anxieties surrounding decadence, decline and fall.
Andy Serkis turns in another exemplary mo-cap performance as Caesar, the now grizzled ape leader. His facial expression, alongside Maurice the dove-like Orangutan, are amazingly photo-real. Another unbridled joy is Bad Ape, a diminutive, emotionally damaged zoo escapee that Caesar and his compadres discover in an abandoned ski resort. Animated with uncanny skill, scripted and voiced (by Steve Zahn) with engaging pathos, this new character elicits equal laughter and sympathy, so much so that I loved every moment of his screen time.
The central cast of humans is slight – the ape-centric focus of this third installment of the updated franchise sets it apart. With this perspective, it is the humans who appear belligerent, aggressive and irrational. They fight amongst themselves – The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) commands a paramilitary group threatened by the larger remainder of the US Army – in what has become a three-way war. The Colonel’s Alpha-Omega supremacists seek the annihilation of the apes, but the cause of their exile is The Colonel’s conviction that the original (man-made) ‘simian flu’ has mutated and is causing mankind to lose its intelligence, to de-evolve into a speechless sub-human state. Stopping its spread means execution (not more medical research) for all connected with it, The Colonel believes.
Near the end of the movie, Caesar discovers that the Colonel himself has succumbed to the virus via an infected doll. Does this mean that The Colonel’s extermination policy was right, and his beliefs correct, though cruel? Or does it mean that the de-evolution of mankind is unstoppable? The movie offers no answer either way.
This theme of de-evolution is required if the movie series is to arrive at the starting point of the original Planet Of The Apes (based on the 1963 novel La Planète des Singes by Pierre Boulle). But, if the theme were removed, War would fundamentally be the same movie, and for this reason it feels arbitrary; added to the narrative rather than integrated into it. And the ‘shock reveal’ that The Colonel has de-evolved is far too obvious an instance of poetic justice, and is silly. The storytelling strains its own logic, as he apparently still knows his own mind well enough to want to shoot himself, and to carry it out.
Another way to look at an ‘arbitrary’ theme is to view it as part of narrative/fantasy/dream that is attached to deep unresolved anxieties, that cannot be integrated or resolved smoothly within the narrative scheme. The elements of the theme are over-determined, burdened with too much fear or desire to allow them to sit alongside other elements without causing disruption. It could be that thoughts of contagion, decline, disintegration and loss of the ‘human’ are more urgent, more troubling, than the more generic themes of war, family, betrayal etc. We live in a culture that cannot help but contemplate its demise by ecological disaster, overpopulation, dwindling resources, pollution, nuclear war (a recently resurgent fear), microplastics and all the rest of it. The failure of the movie to give a clear signal about the meaning of The Colonel’s extermination policy, is the failure of our culture to know what to do to redeem the future.
Other aspects of the movie strike unharmonious chords. There’s at least one too many monologuing moments, that bring the film to a halt and one of the witnessing characters to tears. As The Colonel gives his lengthy monologue explaining his ‘holy’ purpose, Caesar sheds a tear. As Caesar dies, and tells Maurice that he’s content, Maurice sheds a tear. And, in a similar vein, as Luca, a gorilla deputy, lays dying and the human child Nova returns the flower to him that he gave her earlier, Caesar sheds a tear. All of this is high emotion stuff, but repetition betrays it as formulaic.
The score, by Michael Giacchino, is also a bit ‘off’. Having recently seen Dunkirk, and marveled at its the challenging, contemporary score, I was struck by how conventional the music was in War, how at times it just seemed out of place. The ‘creeping about’ music during the imprisonment scenes was more suited to a 60s caper, or Pink Panther movie, than it was to a movie demanding a much darker, tense accompaniment. And the swelling emotional choirs, particularly toward the end, were clichéd.
The rather obvious dimensions of the score spills over into some of the narrative strands. Overall, the movie is less complex and emotionally rich than its predecessor Dawn. Telling the story from the apes perspective, fresh though it is, renders the humans one-dimensional. We see little of their world, and almost all of the human characters are empty. Harrelson plays the Colonel competently, but his ruthlessness seems generic. He is a medium-level despot, whose ‘clarity’ and ‘purpose’ are so absolute, so seamless that they show no sign of psychic consequence, which might unhinge a man. His monologue about killing his own son seems rational rather than rationalising. Harrison shows no strain, no doubt or sense of the cost of his actions.
The prison sequences are also familiar. Classic World War Two escape dramas are recalled, consciously perhaps. The business of devising a plan of escape and putting it into practice is workman-like rather than an exciting in its depiction.
High on sentiment, the movie is oddly discordant, with less bite and integrity than Dawn and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This made my experience a mixed one, although there was much to enjoy and some lingering thematic resonances.