WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES * 1 / 2
Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval and Amiah Miller. Screenplay by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves. Directed by Matt Reeves.
There’s a monastically solemn, over-explanatory flattening of pop mythology that’s been bumming me out for the past few years. I used to call it the “creeping Nolan-ization” of genre entertainment, but now it hardly seems fair to blame the one guy who’s actually pretty good at it. This is something that’s plagued the post-Casino Royale Bond pictures and other such “gritty reboots” geared towards the ploddingly literal-minded, sucking out any traces of mystery or wonder and making a point of dragging the fantastic down to Earth. I kid Christopher Nolan’s films because they’re sexless, way too into exposition and take themselves desperately seriously. (Kinda like his fans.) But The Dark Knight looks like Adam West when compared to these dour new Planet Of The Apes prequels.
In 2014 I called Matt Reeves’ Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes “a very easy movie to admire and almost impossible to enjoy. I spent most of the running time appreciating the artistry while wishing I could be anywhere else. It’s a morose grind towards the inevitable, devoted to a gloomy apocalyptic worldview unleavened by anything resembling wit or humanity. I’ve had more fun at funerals.” You can say the exact same things about War For The Planet Of The Apes, while also adding that this installment is even longer and more miserable.
I really hated watching it. The film pits our noble ape Caesar (again mo-capped by Andy Serkis) against a U.S. Army Colonel gone insane, played by Woody Harrelson giving his least interesting performance in years. The Colonel kicks off the movie by machine-gunning Caesar’s family, turning our pacifist simian pal into one revenge-hungry monkey. The bulk of the film’s seemingly endless second act finds Caesar imprisoned in a concentration camp where the Colonel and his rogue militia of deserters force apes into slave labor building a giant wall that’s supposed to protect the compound from the regular Army’s inevitable return. (It’s also so viewers can pat themselves on the back for noticing “it’s about a crazy leader obsessed with building a wall” — one of the film’s many vague allusions to politics that don’t actually add up to anything.)
There’s gotta be at least an hour here of ape crucifixions, torture and executions in the camp, and Caesar even gets to re-enact Denzel Washington’s famous scene from Glory. If you’re cool with all this heavily loaded slavery and Holocaust imagery being used in a sci-fi summer blockbuster about talking primates who can ride horses, that’s well within your rights. Personally I found it all a bit distasteful and more than a little unpleasant. Cool shout-outs to Schindler’s List though, bro.
After Kong: Skull Island this is the second big gorilla movie this year to incessantly reference Apocalypse Now for no discernable reason. We first see Harrelson’s Colonel wearing Captain Williard’s face paint and later he’s shaving his head with a straight-razor and delivering massive, Brando-ish monologues that double as exposition dumps. Though the movie is supposedly set in the near future, Harrelson’s barracks are full of Vietnam-era accessories and he listens to Jimi Hendrix records. He also wears his sunglasses at night. When it’s raining.
Look, I understand that the original Apes films were hardly upbeat entertainments. But they had a certain camp je ne sais quoi that allowed you to enjoy the inherent ridiculousness of the premise while still being creeped the fuck out by the Statue of Liberty on the beach. You won’t find anything like Zira taking a bubble bath in a Matt Reeves picture. These movies aren’t just serious, they’re *serious* in a young man’s overcompensating manner that becomes monotonous.
I liked the silvery, midnight glow of Michael Seresin’s cinematography, and it is undeniable that the motion capture work and computer generated effects in these films are minor miracles of modern technology. There’s a sad sack sidekick ape performed by Steve Zahn (oh, how I’ve missed seeing him in movies) and I became obsessed for a little while with the worn-out, powder blue ski vest he was wearing. I sat there wondering just how many people it took to design that vest and animate it with such a wonderful, weather-beaten texture.
I know, right? Anything to take my mind off the drudgery of watching War For The Planet Of The Apes grind to its conclusion.