There’s nothing quite as annoying as being out of touch with the popular consensus about a movie, but only by a little. When you love a movie everyone loves you get to luxuriate in the world’s excitement, when you hate a movie everyone hates you get to join in on the feeding frenzy, when you love a movie everyone hates you get the privilege of being an iconoclast who sees in something what everyone else doesn’t, and even when you hate a movie everyone else loves you at least get to smugly point out that the emperor has no clothes. However, it’s a lot less fun to be the guy who’s going “hey, you know that movie everyone’s going crazy for? I also like it a lot but think you guys are maybe going overboard, it’s not that good.” This is a difficult position to be in because it requires you to engage in nuance when the internet masses would rather revel in hyperbole. It’s also difficult because you find yourself sounding like you dislike the movie more than you actually do because you focus so much on the negatives in order to justify your position that you don’t bother bringing up the positive elements with which you more or less agree with the consensus. Ever since it debuted in 2011 the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise has kind of been putting me in this annoying little boat, and it’s particularly annoying in their case because my slight disconnect with them is less the result of me seeing gaping holes in them and more just a matter of not being quite as impressed by their achievements as some people are. This will be put to the test once again by the latest film in the series: War for the Planet of the Apes.
Set months, maybe years after the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes this new entry begins with Caesar (Andy Serkis) capturing a handful of human soldiers after a skirmish and opting to free them rather than execute the captives, hoping they’ll send a message that the apes are willing to live peacefully if left alone. Anyone familiar with this series’ take on human nature will not be surprised to learn that this message fell on deaf ears and they are soon attacked once again, this time by a special forces quad being personally led by the commanding officer of this outfit, a guy named Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), and their raid leaves Caesar’s son and wife dead. Swearing vengeance Caesar decides to seek out McCullough and kill him and orders the rest of his ape brethren to march away in the opposite direction towards a safe spot that they’ve scouted. As he heads for McCullough Caesar is joined by other close associates who insist on accompanying him including Maurice (Karin Konoval). Along the way they encounter a chimp who wasn’t part of their tribe (Steve Zahn) and a little human girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) who’s been rendered mute by an evolution of the plague that caused all this trouble in the first place. These two tag along but it quickly becomes clear that their dealings with McCullough will be more difficult that they initially imagined.
As previously stated, I liked the first two rebooted Apes movies but they never really exuded greatness to me despite having a no shortage of great elements on paper. I think I more or less feel the same way about this one, and yet I also kind of liked it better than both of its predecessors even though I think it has more glaring flaws than both of them. I think the main thing that makes it work better for me is that it’s the first of these movies to entirely get rid of human good guys. Rise and Dawn were both ultimately movies about Caesar and got endless credit for managing to build movies around a non-human character, but let’s not forget that those movies also prominently featured James Franco and Joel Edgerton respectively as humans who would try to form friendships with the apes only to see their work undone by their intolerant human brethren. There’s almost none of that here. I suppose Nova it technically a human being who is a “good guy,” but her young age, absence of speech, and lack of apparent loyalty to humanity in many ways makes her an honorary ape more so than a human. With that exception pretty much the only human character that really has a notable speaking role is the villain played by Woody Harrelson, who chews scenery very effectively as the film’s villain. To make up for this Caesar has become increasingly verbose to the point where he can pretty much speak clearly and with a full vocabulary and feels more human than ever.
On top of that I feel like the filmmaking on these movies has only gotten better and better. This third installment is still using the same basic technology that brought the apes to life in the last two movies, and it looked great before make no mistake, but it has only gotten more refined over the years and really looks pretty much seamless at this point. Beyond that though it seems like director Matt Reeves (who boarded the series with the second installment) has only grown more and more confident behind the camera. This isn’t exactly the war film that the title would imply insomuch as it doesn’t play out like a military campaign with Braveheart-like battle scenes, but there is an oppressive and martial atmosphere throughout which plays into reeves’ strengths. So the film is great visually but what about the substance? Well, the thing about this series is that it talks a good game and generally maintains its dignity (which is no small achievement in this blockbuster atmosphere) but its scripts have never really been as smart as it advertises itself and this is no exception. The series’ primary question of whether humans and apes can co-exist was more or less answered in the previous movie (the answer was “no”) so now we’re more or less left see how things play out to explain how the apes are going to take over and make the planet theirs.
For the most part things play out in a pretty satisfactory manner although there are some rather strange storytelling decisions towards the end. I’m thinking in particular of a moment that I probably shouldn’t spoil but let’s just say that there’s an element of chance involved in the ultimate victory of one side over the other and this was so odd that I was really kind of baffled that anyone thought it was a good idea. That’s not a huge deal though really. My problems with the movie have less to do with what it is than what it isn’t. Namely I’ve never really thought these movies were really they biting works of social commentary that they masqueraded as and aside from the not so radical proposition that humanity can be cruel and self destructive I don’t know that they really have all that much to say. Compare that to the original series from the 60s and 70s, which if anything suffered from having too much to say at times, and these feel a little shallow. Where those movies prioritized science fiction ideas and political undertones, these movies focus on pure execution and coherent plotting. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ll save my praise for the movies that manage to do both.