Matt Reeves concludes this remake trilogy in mostly high style as War for the Planet of the Apes doesn’t disappoint as a thematically resonant film about the dark places that mankind will go to survive, but also an entertaining summer action movie. However, there is an ongoing homage in the picture to a specific Vietnam War movie classic that is, at times, so over the top that it threatens to knock the movie off its course.
This is – to be sure – a war movie and from the film’s very first frames, we are thrown into combat as Caesar and his apes fend off an attack by soldiers who are led by a crazed military man known as The Colonel (more on him later). As Earth’s population on all sides continues to dwindle, both Caesar and his kind and mankind wage constant war against each other, although Caesar (again brought to vivid life by Andy Serkis) would be content if man would simply allow the apes to live undisturbed in the woods. Unfortunately, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) isn’t having any of that and wants nothing more than to eradicate the apes.
The picture follows the time honored blockbuster scenario in which a film’s hero – in this case, Caesar – must rescue someone and, in this case, it’s his family and entire species, who are all captured while making a trek to safer land, kept in cages and forced to undertake back-breaking manual labor by The Colonel and his gung-ho men, who have no feeling toward their fellow creatures.
For the most part, War is a fun summer movie that is a little more thoughtful than you might expect. However, it takes a detour once Caesar and a few of his top lieutenants stumble upon The Colonel’s well-guarded fortress. Harrelson – who, early in the picture is seen shaving his head with a razor blade because, well, that’s what villains do, right? – is very clearly cut from the same cloth as one Colonel Kurtz.
So, not only do we get all of the “war is hell” speeches that you’d expect, but Harrelson plays Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” on a boombox at one point in the picture and, most unfortunately, the words Apocalypse Now are literally graffiti’d on a wall. And this wall is shown at least three times during the course of the movie – you know, just in case somebody didn’t pick up these overt references the first umpteen times around. There’s also at least one other sequence that is a callback to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It could have been conceptually interesting for Reeves to draw parallels between these classic Vietnam movies and the Apes pictures, but it’s done so blatantly here that it doesn’t have the intended effect.
But War manages to triumph elsewhere, most notably by using a digitally created character as the film’s protagonist and giving it human qualities that make us empathize with it as if it were a flesh and blood actor. This isn’t Serkis’ first rodeo for this type of character – and it’s been said before and let’s say it again: the work he does is impressive. Caesar is a truly well rounded character. So, while 1968’s original classic Planet of the Apes still remains the gold standard for me in this series, Reeves’ two Apes films have been part of an impressive blockbuster trilogy and War is a fitting – and often powerful – coda.