By Noel Vera
War for the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Matt Reeves
(Warning! Narrative twists and overall plot discussed in detail.)
FIRST THE GOOD stuff: Andy Serkis’s Caesar (last seen gazing thoughtfully at his kneeling followers in the previous Ape installment) returns as the franchise’s digitally enhanced protagonist, all ferocious scowl and simian gait and flaring nostrils. In fact all the apes look great, from the moon-faced Maurice (Karin Konoval playing a Bornean orangutan) to the intimidating yet ultimately gentle Luca (Michael Adamthwaite playing a lowland gorilla) to the hilariously craven Bad Ape (Steve Zahn as a common chimpanzee); they look different and they act different, the human performers perfectly choreographed and translated into simian through motion capture. Gets to the point that you forget they are apes, and follow their story as naturally and effortlessly as if you’d been following a band of humans on a desperate mission.
The ape community lives in a series of mist-shrouded caverns approached by brief tunnel past a raging waterfall (was director Matt Reeves thinking of the bandit lair in Seven Samurai?) — in stark contrast to the military compound, a harsh steel-and-concrete complex modeled partly on Auschwitz, partly on Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s Swiss Alps hideaway.
And that’s all the nice I am able to say. Beyond that the apes’ wanderings (a bit biblical, a lot of Moses) register less like an epic human (Simian?) odyssey and more like a Candidean misdaventure: when attacked by the Alpha Omega military group Caesar spares the survivors’ lives; the group pays him back by raiding the apes’ home and killing Caesar’s wife and eldest son. Caesar sends his people away to a promised far-off sanctuary but doesn’t lead them; instead he goes on a one-man mission to meet the mysterious Colonel who ordered the raid.
Caesar doesn’t really go alone of course; Maurice, Luca, and Rocket (Terry Notary) insist on joining him and resolute leader that he is he lets them. Along the way Caesar’s group is surprised not once but twice; first by a loner able to sneak up on their horses and steal a gun (Didn’t anyone think to post a guard?), second by a group of soldiers who end up killing one of their own. The group does manage to successfully ambush one Alpha-Omega soldier — who turns out to be a renegade gone AWOL to protect his suddenly mute daughter (Amiah Miller). Apparently the Colonel has a thing against mutes.
Caesar feels he has to approach the military camp alone (Why? Not really sure.) and is captured (duh!) but not before he realizes that his entire group had been captured before him — had probably been scooped up soon as they left home. Caesar has fought humans before, has in fact fought this group before; he must have had some idea what they were capable of and still he let his folks go with at best a kiss and wave goodbye. Which gives rise to a dawning suspicion: does Caesar have garlic croutons for brains? Is he working with a full head of lettuce? Perhaps the dressing’s too thick? In peacetime he may be Martin Luther King, Jr. standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial but in war he’s strictly George Armstrong Custer getting ready to sell himself dearly at Little Round Top. The one thing that saves him is that the Colonel — who turns out to be Woody Harrelson channeling Marlon Brando channeling what I guess would be some really choice weed — isn’t much better. Given an army of ape laborers said officer proceeds to work them to death without food and water; given the possibility of a major military attack (apparently fellow soldiers are on their way to pound him into the ground for his “unsound methods”) said officer decides to build a wall (Sounds familiar?) made of logs and rock (Against Apache helicopters and air-to-ground missiles?) to keep everyone out (which works out very well thanks).
You have to hand it to Caesar; after being tortured and starved and staked out in full-on Christ mode he manages to engineer an escape for his folks — which is promptly discovered and said folks just as promptly massacred. The slaughter is interrupted by the arrival of aforementioned rival faction who wipe out Alpha Omega (arguably Caesar did all that by setting off an unlikely chain of fuel explosions but the A-Os are so obviously outmatched [their Apaches must be in the repair shop] I suspect the most that Caesar did was save the rivals some ammo). He stares at them in horror as they cheer the killing of half their number; they look back and you’re not sure just what they’re about to do other than rack their rifles and blow him away — when an avalanche sweeps it all under tons of ice and snow.
Which brings us to the subject of military installations: avalanches are often a seasonal annual occurrence their pathways usually predictable; what military genius put said installation right smack dab in the middle of such a pathway?
Oh, as for the initial premise — a disease that not only kills humans and increases ape intelligence but mutates to devolve the human brain’s center of speech (At the same time presumably evolving the ape’s?)? How genetically tailor-made is this bug anyway? Did anyone check if the Russians are involved?
I guess you can call this nitpicking — the point being I wouldn’t be looking for nits if the initial concept was interesting enough to draw me in. Remember Pierre Boulle’s original novel was a satire whose main conceit was a space traveler landing in a planet full of apes, said traveler realizing the apes represented the very worse his own species had to offer. Rod Serling and Franklin J. Schaffner (with rewrites by Michael Wilson) fashioned that satire into a mordantly witty Cold War parable, a monster hit that spawned several sequels, a TV show, an animated show, and this reboot.
The reboot’s filmmakers stand Boulee’s concept on its head: instead of a cracked mirror held up to our faces the apes are some form of higher being — flawed perhaps but more capable than we of developing a nonviolent, nature-loving, openhearted society (one where at one point — I kid you not — a little girl sticks a tiny blossom in a massive gorilla’s mane). Between the nightmare Boulle envisioned, that Serling and Schaffner realized on the big screen, and this tepid tea which do you think I’d rather revisit? Free banana if you guess right.
MTRCB Rating: PG