Warning: This review contains minor plot spoilers. You may wish to stroke these apes before reading on.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a sumptuous conclusion to the trilogy that began, without much promise, with a story centred on James Franco’s improbable neuroscientist and John Lithgow’s Alzheimer’s disease. Who knew then that once Matt Reeves took over, the series would become thought provoking and abundant with atmosphere and texture – a poster child for movies that showcase cutting edge visual events in service to, rather than at the expense of, the storytelling.
Perhaps that’s a little unfair to Rupert Wyatt’s, er, original – it had strong themes in play – but Reeves’ Dawn and this sequel have the focus and post-apocalyptic grit the parent lacked. It’s a series that like the human race portrayed therein, has been conditioned by disease, deprivation and fear.
This is, once again, the tale of Andy Serkis’s Caesar, a full-throated and technically accomplished motion-captured performance, and his vengeful confrontation with human military colonel and monkey hating madman, Woody Harrelson. There may be nothing new under the simian sun from consulting the playbook page that says both hero and villain are two sides of the same coin, but the schism’s given extra pathos here by drawing on well-judged biographical parallels – both characters have lost children because of the war, and both represent the opposing trajectories and changing status of the planet’s two dominant species.
Harrelson’s Colonel might have been a pantomime villain, a walking metaphor for man’s inhumanity as they face the perceived ape threat, and there’s some of that, because, you know, it’s war – but he’s thankfully imbued with greater depth. With great economy, the movie establishes that Simian Flu has mutated and the human carriers now face the prospect of devolving into ape-like simpletons, losing the power of speech, losing their higher brain functions, getting a column in The Spectator, just as the apes start to realise the cognitive potential of their freshly developed human minds. This understandably terrifies Harrelson and lends an urgency, a ticking clock, to his quest to rid the planet of super-intelligent simians before they have the chance to take over and make supplicants of grunting humankind.
This is highly engaging stuff, told at what in any other series we’d call a human level, without recourse to histrionics and setpiece destruction. It’s a story told from the apes’ perspective, that pulls back and reflects when less thoughtful treatments might have been content to overload the senses with eternal gunfights and man on ape combat. The war of the title isn’t just of dominion but also the soul – which outlook should prevail? Which set of values? The passing of our own species is given the tragic aspect it deserves while the new ape commune ends the movie on an optimistic note. Not an easy trick to pull off but Matt Reeves has proven himself to be a mainstream filmmaker of distinction. Fans of DC comics will await his Hitchcockian, Noir-inspired take on Batman with great interest.