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Who Will Win the 'War for the Planet of the Apes'?

Jul. 11, 2017
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Planet of the Apes 2.0 is about science gone amok. In an ill-conceived experiment, our first cousins in the animal kingdom are elevated to human intelligence. Soon enough, they prove smarter than most people by escaping their cages. Next thing you know, the franchise taps anxiety over a pan-species pandemic. The “Simian Flu” takes down much of humanity, even as moderate ape leader Caesar battles the militant Koba, a monkey out for vengeance against the cruelty of man.

War for the Planet of the Apes

Andy Serkis

Woody Harrelson

Directed by Matt Reeves

Rated PG-13

In War for the Planet of the Apes, Koba has already died, but Caesar (Andy Serkis) is still fighting—this time with a rogue Special Forces commander, Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson). Channeling Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz, Harrelson plays his colonel as a shaven-headed psychopath. Although lacking Brando’s depth and mystery, Harrelson eventually manages to fill his loose canon of a character with a quality more consistently maintained by the movie’s simians. He becomes sympathetic. 

The remnants of the U.S. Army are the bad guys throughout. “Monkey Killer” is chalked on a helmet in the platoon that ambushes the apes as the movie begins. Humans aren’t to be trusted, except for a mute, golden-haired girl who turns up along the way and accompanies Caesar and his apes-de-camp, Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and Maurice (Karin Konoval), on their quest. Caesar is seeking to kill the colonel after Special Forces take the lives of his wife and child.

The opening action sequence is well choreographed and the 65-millimeter cinematography brings visual richness to a movie set largely at night under a pale, spooky moon or in dark snow forests. The colonel’s headquarters, where apes are kept as slave labor, is one part Schindler’s List and one part late-medieval depiction of hell. 

The plot is wobbly, succumbs to melodrama, loses momentum and climaxes with a de rigueur meltdown of fire and destruction that adds many unnecessary minutes to a movie that had already lost its rhythm. Lifting up War for the Planet of the Apes are the simian characters, enhanced by performance capture and Oscar-worthy prosthetics. They communicate with sounds and signs (their dialogue is subtitled). Scowling Caesar speaks English in down-low gravel tones reminiscent of Clint Eastwood in a bad mood. Their society is well conceived and the personalities of individual apes are sharply drawn. Those enhanced simians can do anything we can do but haven’t lost a monkey’s agility in scampering up trees—a handy attribute when the going gets tough. As a leader of apes, Caesar, the compassionate warrior, proves to be a better man than most of us.


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