Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

Maybe I’m old-fashioned but I liked the original PLANET OF THE APES films from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Okay, I liked some of the films more than others but there was an earnestness to the pentalogy in how they dealt with such hot issues of the day as the potential for nuclear war, animal rights and racism. The latest series of POTA films — a trilogy, maybe — also tackles contemporary issues, such as xenophobia, the rise of biotechnology and the threat of pandemic disease. Thanks to advances in computer technology, these new films also very impressive in their craft. You would be forgiven if, for just a moment, you thought you were watching real apes act. The performance capture technology on display here is the film’s star.

If you haven’t seen the first two films in this new series, don’t worry. You’ll be brought up to speed (in colour) in the first minute of WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Simply, the Simian Flu has decimated the human population while, at the same time, the intelligence of the apes has increased thanks to a medical experiment that went out of control. After a battle with the remnants of the US Army, the apes hide out in the forest outside San Francisco. Their leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis, THE LOTR trilogy; STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS), plans to move them to a new location where hopefully, one day, they and the humans can co-exist in peace.

As WAR opens, Caesar finds his dream quickly shattered after a squadron of soldiers finds their home. The men get captured before any damage is done and Caesar decides to release them so that they can report back to their leader that the apes want to live in peace. For the humans’ leader, Colonel McCullogh (Woody Harrelson, TV’s CHEERS), peace is not a viable option and he mounts a ruthless attack on the apes, killing most of Caesar’s family in the process. Obsessed with revenge, Caesar tells the apes to set out for their new home while he and his three most-trusted colleagues, Maurice (Karin Konova), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and Rocket (movement choreographer Terry Notary) hunt down the Colonel. On their journey, they come across a young orphan girl (Amiah Miller, LIGHTS OUT) who is mute. Worried that she’ll die if left all alone, Maurice convinces Caesar to bring her along with them. The five continue along and discover one of their own, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB), hiding out in an abandoned ski resort. Together they reach the Colonel’s fortress and uncover his nefarious plans, not just for the apes but for the rest of humankind.

While the story is coherent, it borrows very heavily from other films and pop culture elements. Apes that have turned on their own kind and are abetting the humans are called “donkeys”, as in Donkey Kong; apes, collectively, are disparagingly referred to as “kong”, which is a reference to both King Kong and the Viet Cong; and, in case you haven’t cottoned onto the Vietnam connection by that point, we’re shown a wall where someone has scrawled “Ape-pocalypse NOW”! The “hit me over the head” moment, though, happens when we first see the Colonel, who is all too reminiscent of Colonel Kurtz. The only thing missing is Marlon Brando’s sibilant way of speaking. Caesar’s journey to find the Colonel also parallels the story in APOCALYPSE NOW! and its source material, Heart of Darkness. Story elements from EXODUS, THE LORD OF THE RINGS and even THE GREAT ESCAPE can be seen in the film as well.

To its credit, the film does draw parallels from today’s America, including an armed-to-the-teeth, hyperpatriotic militia, a leader with fascist tendencies, a border wall and even the Black Lives Matter movement. And, in some thoughtful writing, connections to the original POTA series are revealed one by one. (Fans of the original series will spot them.)

Although I wasn’t overwhelmed with the film (technological wizardry notwithstanding), it was decent popcorn entertainment… and the original series was nothing more than that either. The film’s producers have said this series is a trilogy but it’s quite obvious (at least to me) from the ending that we haven’t seen the last of the PLANET OF THE APES. As long as they can continue making the stories relevant and keep upping the game on the mo-cap technology, I’m in for the journey.

Listen the review on RTHK Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 25:00.)

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