Audiences don’t expect a blockbuster to provide intellectual stimulation, but on occasion, that desire does arise. In recent years, the rebooted Planet of the Apes series has fulfilled this want by combining action movie thrills with thoughtful storylines. Disappointingly, the newest instalment is preoccupied with delivering the former rather than the latter.
For the past two years, what remains of humanity has been waging a brutal war with the world’s primates, including the clan of Caesar (Andy Serkis) – the protagonist of the two previous Apes movies, Rise and Dawn. He is determined to defend his kind from the scourge of the military forces, but has not forsaken his ability to show compassion, which his followers greatly respect him for. That said, they are becoming increasingly fatigued by the conflict, and long to be removed from it.
When Caesar’s family is slaughtered by Colonel McCollough (Woody Harrelson), the leader of the opposing human forces, all civility is forgotten, with Caesar determined to seek revenge. Aided by only his closest associates, he ventures to a nearby military base to confront the Colonel, only to learn that his forces are moving north to the Californian border. With his desire for vengeance unabated, Caesar and his fellow apes follow the Colonel’s convoy, encountering mountainous terrain and snowy weather as they do so.
As is consistent with this series, War for the Planet of the Apes makes use of some spectacular motion-capture technology, once again using human actors as a reference for the computer-generated apes. While there are instances where the technology’s shortcomings are noticeable – particularly when the apes are on horseback – for the most part, the simian characters look every bit as real as their human counterparts. Given how lifelike the primates looked in the last movie, this is quite an achievement.
Special effects also predominate the war sequences which the title speaks of. Gunfire, explosions and the occasional longbow make for the most action-packed Apes film to date, which will come as a disappointment to fans of the other features – there’s little of the nuanced commentary that was present in Dawn. In fairness, it does make for a pretty good war film, and references to the iconic Apocalypse Now do bring a smile to one’s face.
The same is true of the newcomers to the franchise, who all put in great performances. Harrelson’s villainous Colonel has this quiet, restrained madness about him that is fascinating to watch; Steve Zahn provides some much-needed comic relief as the ironically-named Bad Ape; and feature film debutant Amiah Miller is quite charming and convincing – she plays a mute orphan who the apes are forced to foster on their journey.
Each of these attributes enable War of the Planet of the Apes to differentiate itself from its predecessor, despite being helmed by the same director, Matt Reeves. Consequently, this means that War is deprived of that sense of awe present in the other films. In addition to that, the motivations of the characters are very obscure (particularly the Colonel’s), there is an over-reliance of subtitles, and the ending over-stays its welcome by several minutes.
When compared to the other instalments, it is far from brilliant, but War for the Planet of the Apes is nonetheless a good film. The special effects are impressive as ever, the acting is superb all-round and the action sequences are the best of the franchise so far. If only it had the smarts to go with it.