Movie Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes”

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I saw “War for the Planet of the Apes” some weeks ago, when it was screened for most critics. And I’ve been mulling it, and my not-quite-repellent response to it ever since.

Because whatever one feels about the new touchstone for digitally-created hairy animals (apes) and the motion-capture suit “performances” this final film in the latest Apes saga represent — and it’s impressive, but not worthy of the hype — the movie is a serious downer.

Bleak, grim, symbolic and dark, it presents a vision of America that is depressing if you think about it. And the film’s bland dialogue and formula quest/test narrative, told wholly from the apes’ point of view, force you to think about it, no matter how pretty the monkeys riding horses through the snow might be.

Escape? This is sci-fi at its most dystopian. If I want to immerse myself in a celebration of America’s decline as a civilization, I turn on cable news, preferably Fox, the network owned by the same studio that produced this film.

Molly Haskell’s summation of the conflicted loyalties engendered by “A.I.” related in the new book, “Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films,” captures how I felt about “Apes”

“We are invited to witness our demise almost as a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

Sorry, that’s not for me.

Aside from that, the saga has lost that “Fear of a Black/Yellow Planet” metaphor of the original Pierre Boulle novel or the first films to come from it. But it’s still a movie with a message, that revenge and violence are a cycle civilization can overcome if individuals can learn that lesson.

If only the humans were the ones learning it.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) hasn’t lost his perma-scowl. He’s trying to keep his tribe safe in the woodlands of northern California. But the last remnants of the American military won’t have it. Ambushes, counter-ambushes and massacres are the products of this guerrilla (and gorilla) war.

There are turncoat apes helping the humans, the equivalent of collaborationists in a POW picture and Native American “scouts” working for the cavalry in Westerns.

But Caesar has seen beyond tit for tat. He is Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, and his version of “I will fight no more forever” is “The killing will stop.” No, it’s not poetic. None of the dialogue here is.

Showing mercy to human captives will force their fanatical, desperate commander (Woody Harrelson) to change his view of the apes whose revolt ripped America apart.

“He will see we are not savages.”

Fat chance.

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The Colonel (Harrelson) has ventured too far into the heart of darkness for enlightenment. Whatever his true motivations, he is hunting “King Kong,” his army’s code-name for Caesar, the first ape to learn to talk. And when he grabs Caesar’s son and heir (Another “Chosen one?”), Caesar must set out to save the child. Forget his “Apes…TOGETHER” mantra. This is a select mission for him and a couple of aides.

It is on that journey, leading up to a finale that is borrowed from every World War II commando picture (and a lot of James Bond thrillers) that Caesar maybe senses the consequences of the ape uprising and the viral catastrophe (human made) that it heralded.

Director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield,” “Let Me In,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) and his production design team perfect their depiction of a post-civilization America, wood and stone and snowy greys — apes as Apaches on horseback vs. the last chopperloads of gas for the army. It’s a film dark in appearance, darker in tone.

The apes, both the speaking Caesar and empathetic, expressive other featured simian characters — Maurice, Cornelius from the original “Apes” movies, and “Bad Ape,” the comic relief voiced by Steve Zahn — look photo-real and move with greater dexterity than ever. Sure, the super-human stuff has to be animated in because 50ish actors in mo-cap suits don’t have gorilla or chimpanzee strength and skills.

But the apes are also counted on to deliver “performances” here which, I’m sorry, don’t add up to that. They’re fine in action scenes, and the soulful eyes are expressive. But the animation lacks the body language and facial muscled nuance that actors have in generating emotion.

Which is something the picture, as a whole, sorely lacks as well.

It’s got the dark tone and brand recognition that promise great success at the box office. But this lacks the weight of “Logan,” the wit of “Guardians of the Galaxy” or the attempts at warmth seen in most any sci-fi blockbuster outside of the plastic “Transformers” franchise. The slack pace, somber story and meandering-between-action-beats scenes make it something of an impressive glum and glummer bore.

I was reminded of similar smashes that might have a momentary resonance within the culture. Think of the pent-up demand, and finally-diverse cast of characters of “The Force Awakens” promised that got fans worked up — but which fail to sustain the breathless “Me TOO” rave reviews that greeted its release, or even make a mark on the collective memory.  This summer has been packed with sequels like that.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” is as downbeat a popcorn picture as “Logan,” but the differences are marked, those between a movie you just watch, and one that makes you ponder your life, your world and your attitudes. It’s the difference between seeing and absorbing.

To me, it’s just another “Jurassic World,” technology and production design on a whole new plane, story, dialogue and characters that we’ve seen before (too often), the entire hyped and over-rated enterprise half-forgotten before it hits Netflix.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13, for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements and some disturbing images

Cast: Digitized Andy Serkis, Judy Greer and Toby Kebbell, with Woody Harrelson. Amiah Miller

Credits: Directed by Matt Reeves, script byMark Bomback and Matt Reeves . A -20th Century Fox release.

Running time: 2:20

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20 Responses to Movie Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes”

  1. Cornelius says:

    Your mediocrity is staggering. Bringing Fox News into this demonstrated your limited imagination and revealed the true nature of your childish contempt. Quit your job. Fire yourself.

  2. Fred says:

    I see you’re pretty much a regular weirdo on hatting these recent summer blockbuster films. You don’t like “Homecoming” don’t like “War of The Planet Of Apes”, even though both films have gotten excellent reviews. I know people like you, one of those regular Donny downers that hates something the majority seems to enjoy because you’re bitter with spark of light which I can see by you’re boring avatar. You look dead haha.

    • Proofread, Fred, Proofread. Fred, for those who don’t know him, used to post rave “reviews” of crappy “Hunger Games” movies on Yahoo. Until they got wiser, or developed some standards. Now he sells comic book movie toys on eBay. And I may look “dead,” but better dead than too plump to pull off those dreads on Facebook. Fred.

      • Pooj says:

        Haha wow you owned him. Anyway I agree with your review spot on. Very soulless but technically proficient movie. I don’t think this series ever brought anything to the table, not even an unseen spectacle.

      • I do fret on the state of film reviewing when “soulless” exercises like this warrant a mob mentality “Let’s save ourselves the hate mail and ENDORSE this fanboy-loved piffle” evidenced on Rottentomatoes, less so on Metacritic.

  3. Cary Hoffson says:

    I will give the movie a chance to see for myself how the movie is like I do with any other movie I go in for

    • It’s all anybody expects. Feel free to come back and argue, once you’ve seen the film and if you then disagree with my review. Bring talking points, evidence. Make your case. I did.

      • Jack says:

        I started noticing over the last 10 yrs comments like “Don’t listen to critics: See the movie and decide for yourself!”

        Well, I happen enjoy reading film criticism. It actually helps me decide whether I want to pay to see a film or not. It’s my money. It’s my time. Anyone who attacks a film critic for proving the public with their honest & personal appraisal of the films they see is not on the side of free will & choice. And most of these people haven’t even seen the film! Yet, they telling people to see the movie anyway. Unreal. If these people want me to see a movie so much, then PAY FOR MY TICKET. If not, go away. Your comments are meaningless.

  4. Alec says:

    Roger, I’m not sure why you feel the need to comment back to people who are clearly trying to goad you into responding to them. Some of your responses are no better or even worse than the original comments. Why waste time to research and go after “Fred” and cruelly insult his weight and hair? You’re a professional and should act accordingly. Be the bigger person. I’m a huge advocate of civil debate of the arts. Don’t allow your personal website to de-evolve into petty name calling. You can control the timbre of the discussion. By acting no better than the ugliest commenters, you’re encouraging that environment. If you don’t want that sort of content, delete it and engage with those who actually want to have a thoughtful discussion.

    • Thanks, sport. But I let people have their say, unless they cross into NC-17 territory. A generation under the impression that all opinions are created equal is pretty quick to flip the more-informed off. It’s supposed to be a “conversation,” but if somebody is stupid enough to harangue the better-informed/experience at making a case with examples and facts, to argue over a movie they haven’t seen, and get personal with a professional insult-slinger, that’s part of the show. And no, I never cross a line first or go further than the initial complainer. But I’ve only been doing this for 33 years, so what do I know?

    • Cyle says:

      Oh Lord here’s the PC police. So many people like yourself are distracted and perturbed by the thoughts and opinions of others. This is exactly why a narcissistic maniac managed to win the freaking White House!!! Let’s try and avoid such distractions and focus on the real world. Focus your energies on things that really matter and make a real difference. That’s what we need. Enough is enough…

  5. Cyle says:

    Just give the entire movie away why don’t you! I’ll not be reading your reviews again. Amateur hour…

    • Cyle says:

      Alec- My negative review of his review aside, I respect him for taking the time to respond to posters. At least he gives a flip. Maybe I’ll read his reviews in the future after all!

    • Say what now? A brief sketch of an outline, comment on acting/dialogue/action beats-arc, and that’s “giving the whole movie away?” Don’t be daft.

      • Cyle says:

        Hi Roger. I’m not being silly. I’m being honest…

        The apes are in N Cal and they’re sporadically ambushed by what’s left of the US Military. Obviously this doesn’t satisfy the Colonel. He wants Caesar (C). To provoke C (and remove him from his element) the Colonel takes C’s son and we’re off! C and his “aides” go on a mission to retrieve his son. An infuriated C, hellbent on revenge, sets out to murder every human he encounters. After doing just that (for a time) he runs into a child. This child (one way or another) reminds C of the compassion he’s always had for the “good side” of humanity. His mission changes. He no longer wants to destroy the human race. It’s time to kill the bad guys, specifically the Colonel. This sets the stage for the ultimate showdown, the smash em up battle between C and the Colonel (i.e. the type of finale often seen in Bond thrillers).

        Annnnd since you’ve stated the movie’s “message,” I guess this is where C gets the best of the Colonel and spares his life. C’s attempt to end civilization’s cycle of revenge and violence.

        Still think I’m being silly?

      • I’ll take another look. Do 500 reviews a year, and sometimes you over-share. Might deserve to lose a detail or three.

  6. Jason Bowman says:

    Roger you are my favorite reviewer at Rottentomatoes.com because you are not politically correct and you just tell flat out why you disliked a movie even if it’s a “well received one.” I myself still want to see War For the Planet of the Apes. I think I’m suffering from Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Predator, and Terminator fatigue. I was one of those silly hopefuls that wanted the War Craft movie to be good just to see some new movie franchise. Something a bit different. Then I turn around and in some ways I miss those long drawn out detective movies Morgan Freeman use to star in before what I consider his retirement, but I also hanker for something fantastic and other worldly but well written- without any hints at how awful we white people are said to be. It isn’t easy shouldering the ills of all mankind as some pin on us. I felt Spider Man Homecoming was trying to say something with their mouth sideways or maybe they like featuring more plain women. Heck if I know. I’m actually a fan of the movie John Carter if only it felt like one of those really old “science fiction” novels that was more fantasy then anything. But it was certainty different.

  7. The Devil says:

    It came across as corny. I thought it was sappy and corny with the tinkling piano and the Nova thing is entirely stupid. It made me wish I could turn to dust before the lights turned on at the end of the movie. In my opinion, Woody Harrelson isn’t effective as a villain. I guess they figured no one would remember “Apocalypse Now” because everyone is now stupid from using Twitter. Unknown actors should get the villain parts. I usually don’t agree with your reviews. But this one just wasn’t fun or particularly dark enough for me. Love the review.

    • And “Skull Island” already did “Apocalypse Now.” This “version” of the “Heart of Darkness” let all the stretch marks show. And that finale — C-movie action tropes. Of “COURSE there’s a…tunnel…sewer.

      • The Devil says:

        Maybe the creators should have went further in time instead of picking up precisely where the last movie ended. If astronauts landed in a different twisted dimension of “Planet of the Apes” maybe an industrial corporate world of talking apes and called it “The Bureaucracy of the Planet of the Apes.” And just maybe we should leave the entire idea alone and make a “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp Movie.” Just kidding. Apes do sell tickets. Your reviews are fair I think. It is your opinion and you do point out what you like about even the bad ones. I often get too judgemental. If a movie isn’t completely engaging, I drift back into my own troubles and it’s impossible to like it. This might become the worst year for movie critics. You’re going to have to watch a lot of stinkers. I really don’t understand why this movie is getting such great reviews.

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