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.”
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.
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