This is the end, beautiful friend.

The end of the re-imagined Planet of the Apes trilogy.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes surprised me back in 2011.  I feared that a re-hash of 1968’s Planet of the Apes might be terrible (what gave me that idea, eh, Tim Burton?)  But they surmounted all my prejudices by bringing a fresh eye to time-worn plot points (scientist tampers with nature ... gets his comeuppance) and made the story delightfully emotional, leading to a well-deserved epic finale.

They followed this with Dawn, which advanced the story, made the characters more complex and compelling, and, again, told an old fashioned story (an underling’s cowardice threatens to scupper their ruler’s good work) in a fresh and diverting way.

Anticipation, then, for the inevitable final part of the triptych, War, was very high.  History is, after all, lousy with examples of trilogies that fell apart with the third film.  Aliens, Superman, Godfather, Spider-Man, X-Men, Jurassic Park, Fast and Furious ... The Evil Dead (joking).

Monkeys mounted.  A scene deliberately visually echoing the original Apes films.  It's also the only scene where California looks anything like we expect it to look. 

This film is set two years on from Dawn, but the events happen as a direct result of that film.  But, for me, this film doesn’t push forward beyond Dawn.  That film was shockingly different from the one which preceded; the world had changed, the characters had evolved (literally and emotionally), it even looked different.  This film looks very similar to Dawn, damp and dour, cold and getting colder.

Thematically it is similar too, with Caesar (played, once again, by Mr. Mo-Cap, Andy Serkis) trying to maintain the peace and the harmony of his tribe by reiterating his belief that apes together are strong.

But the world beyond the forest has turned against them.  A mysterious ‘Colonel’ has declared war on the apes and, as the film’s opening sequence shows, that is a full-on hot war, with massive casualties on both sides.

It is to the film’s credit that it show’s this introductory battle as being terrifying and brutal on both sides.  This isn’t good-guys versus bad-guys deal.  It’s a confused and convoluted war.

Indeed, the soldiers use simian scouts to help them track the wild apes, these are apes who have been tamed and branded and are dubbed ‘donkey’.  This immediately put me in mind of pre-Revolutionary Indian wars.

Caesar himself has grown in stature.  Whereas he was seen as leader, he has now been elevated to legendary status.  It is befitting, then, that the shadow of Charlton Heston is cast across this film, but not Heston the last human in a mad world, this is Heston the living legend.  Caesar is whipped and enslaved by someone he swears vengeance on.  All very Ben-Hur-like.  But Caesar is trying to lead his people to the Promised Land, so he is also Moses to them.

However, this is all played out against a background which is deliberately reminiscent of The Indian wars, as well as the American slave trade, with elements of Nazi concentration camps and prisoner-of-war camps.  It’s a confusing mish-mash of allusions.

One of the most interesting plotlines involves Kurtz McCullough's reliance on 'Donkeys', collaborator apes.  Here, the gorilla known as Red is a sort of Fletcher Christian to Woody's Bligh.

And this where I started having real difficulty with the film,  It lacks clear focus.  When we finally meet the enigmatic Colonel, (played well by a very calm, restrained Woody Harrelson), he reels off the names of wartime leaders he admires - Wellington gets a mention, as do both Custer and Sitting Bull.  (He doesn’t mention Walter Kurtz, though, just saying).  When he gets his big exposition scene, to explain to Caesar when his epiphany happened and why he believes what he believes, it simply doesn’t make sense.  His grudge is against the virus that was released in the first film, not with the apes.  So, he lacks clear motivation.

Caesar’s motivations are much clearer and simpler, he wants revenge.  But that’s never a positive driving force for a protagonist.  It never ends well.  He has lost the vision of a leader and has allowed the battle to become personal.  As Colonel Kurtz McCullough mentions, Caesar is very emotional.

The film also has a confused sense of geography.  I don’t know the Americas well but, when someone says they’re heading for the Californian border, I don’t expect to see ski-lodges and snow.  I’m not saying that’s not right, but I do feel that the audience needs a bit of help understanding the journey(s) the apes make. 

I also think the film was trying to make a comment about the madness of building walls to keep out foreigners and, I suspect, that the wall in question was between America and Canada (again, I don’t associate Mexico with snow), but the point of this was lost in the plethora of other indiscriminate allusions and symbols on offer.

Added to which, director Matt Reeves clearly thinks he’s making a Viet-Nam film.  The grunts have messages written on their helmets (like the famous poster for 1987’s Full Metal Jacket).  They refer to the apes by the pun ‘Kong’ (as in, Viet-Kong) and Colonel Kurtz McCullough enjoys several similarities with Brando’s similarly spaced-out soldier.  There is even a gag, a visual reference to Apocalypse Now (1979), which made me groan out loud.  

Anyone who thinks they've spotted any stray similarities between The Colonels is clearly mad.  As mad as they are.
One expects to see fan service and popular culture references in a Marvel movie; because they are not typically dealing with issues of slavery and man’s endless history of violence and discrimination.  I did not expect, nor welcome, such gags in this film.  It should be more seriously-minded than that.

It’s worth mentioning that Serkis’ performance as Caesar continues to be miraculous, shining through the digital mask they have added.  I genuinely felt he was robbed when he didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for Dawn.  But, of course, the power of his performance was plain to see in both previous films.  Part of my disappointment with this chapter is, I think, simply that the miraculous doesn’t feel quite so miraculous third time round.

Where Weta Workshop’s CGI works brilliantly is in the new character, who calls himself ‘Bad Ape’ (because that’s the phrase he heard most from the humans).  This is a fantastic performance from Steve Zahn; but something troubled ne about him.  He’s there to mostly be the comic relief and, as I’ve indicated, that feels out-of-step in a grim film concerning mankind’s inhumanity and vanity.  But that wasn’t what niggled me about him.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, until the friend I saw the film with hit the nail on the head: “He’s Dobby the House Ape”.

That said, the special effects are flawless (one or two of the riding shots look a bit dodgy ... But riding shots often do), and there is a real scope to the visuals.  It’s certainly played out on a much larger canvas than the previous two films.  It just doesn’t feel like the story-telling has evolved as much as the apes or the technology used to create them.

Obviously they have Andy Serkis back as Caesar; cos no one can make a monkey of himself in a mo-cap suit quite like him; apart from stuntman and movement choreographer, Terry Notary; who is playing Rocket, so that's alright.

They’ve also introduced a silent child with a doll, not simply, one assumes, because she looks like Newt in Aliens (1986) but, presumably, because they wanted someone to exemplify the possible future of human/ape relations.  Her silence, which is apparently an inability to talk brought about by the mutating virus, is evidence of the human race devolving, while the ape race is growing ever more sophisticated and complex.  That’s a great idea, and one which the original Apes films - particularly Conquest Of (1972) and Battle For (1973) - addressed in various ways.  But it isn’t developed here.  So, there’s no real purpose in the child being there.  Oh, apart from the time she walks through the middle of the heavily-defended military camp and none of the soldiers notice her.  Presumably losing the ability to speak also makes one invisible.

Maurice, the Orang-Utan, once again serves as Caesar's moral compass.  And Nova's baby-sitter.
That said, these particular soldiers are significantly dumber than the apes they are guarding.

The greatest issue I had with War for the Planet of the Apes came with the actual war itself - which suddenly and conveniently kicks off in the film’s final act, just as all the other business reaches its climax.  This war, it turns out, is not really between ape and man, but between two factions of men. 

So the characters we care about are not invested in the titular war, they don’t care who wins and, therefore, neither did I.  This is not good for my emotional involvement in the culmination of a three-movie-long story arc.

As the first film did, War manages to slide in subtle references to the original Apes films, which most of the audience won’t notice.  For example, Colonel Kurtz McCullough’s logo is the Δ and Ω  used in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), while the horse-riding apes enjoy a canter along the beach, much as Charlton Heston and his Nova did back in the original Planet of the Apes.

We went in to War for the Planet of the Apes filled with childish hope.  We came out deflated.  We’d had such high expectations for this film.  I’d heard rumours that it was scoring massively on Rotten Tomatoes and that maybe, finally, we had a trilogy where the films kept getting better, rather than peaking at number two.

But no.  You had your chance, guys, and you blew it.  God damn you all to Hell.

Dir:  Matt Reeves
Scriptwriters:  Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves
Cert: 12A
Dur: 140 mins

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