Movie Review: ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Makes for a Bleak, But Transfixing Spectacle

CREDIT: 20th Century Fox

Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller

Director: Matt Reeves

Running Time: 142 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for War Violence Shot Artfully Enough to Avoid an R Rating

Release Date: July 14, 2017

The prequel/reboot Planet of the Apes series has been doing a fine job at that most pervasively needless of tasks: providing origin stories for elements from the original that never needed to be explained. The trick is to make those explanations part of their own particular tales that are compelling enough on their own. In the latest entry, War for the Planet of the Apes, the spotlighted origin is humankind’s loss of speech, which is essentially something that inexplicably and uncontrollably just starts happening, but is also presumably related to the virus from 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes that began to wipe out humanity and boosted apes’ intelligence. Far from a minor plot point, this provides the essential motivation for those who seek to stand in the way of nature.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the rest of the apes have been living mostly happily in the civilization they have constructed for themselves, but the peace between species they have brokered has only ever been uneasy. There is a vestige of what remains of intelligent humans that is intent on reasserting their dominance, most ferociously in the form of Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), a ruthless fighter who justifies his tactics with a form of genetic engineering tinged with desperation. When a sneak attack by McCullough kills several of Caesar’s loved ones, the stage is set for an ultimate standoff. While Caesar’s reaction flirts somewhat uncomfortably with revenge territory, the conflict remains more generally compelling, as his larger motivation is protecting apes and simply wanting this war to end. The bleakness of ending war with more war (even in self-defense) is not ignored.

War for the Planet of the Apes can easily be read as a metaphor in which a dominant social group finds the status quo upended and tries to swing the pendulum back. Those moments can easily be found now and at many other points in the history of society. But what is remarkable is how much that is a side effect. This series is primarily devoted to commenting upon and analyzing itself more than anything else. That commitment extends to the thorough chilliness of the vision. It is never specified if the setting is in a particularly wintry area, or if the future is eternally snowy, or both. Either way, the effect is oppressive. There are moments of levity (most memorably from Steve Zahn’s “Bad Ape,” a jittery former circus animal who has gone a little loopy from cabin fever), but overall, this is a film that takes days to swallow to bear appreciating its majesty.

War for the Planet of the Apes is Recommended If You Like: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Apocalypse Now, The Searchers

Grade: 4 out of 5 Machine Gun-Toting Apes

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