Over the 54 years in which the Planet of the Apes’ franchise has been evolving, it has fluctuated between brilliant and forgettable. Nothing highlights this better than Rotten Tomatoes, which reveals a 56 percentage point fluctuation between the best and worst Apes film, of which there have been nine. At its best, Planet of the Apes has been a sophisticated social commentary, probing the audience with philosophical questions about the difference between human and animal. At its worst, it has traded its intellect and heart for gratuitous action scenes and half-baked plotlines.
The latest Apes film – War for the Planet of the Apes – takes a little from column A and a little from column B. Director Matt Reeves understands that the human/animal divide is one of the series’ strengths and makes this a central part of his narrative. However, the way he does is not through dialogue or science fiction twists, but through engrossing cinematography.
War, the third part of 20th Century Fox’s Apes resurrection, continues the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), James Franco’s freakishly-smart monkey who is slowly but surely overthrowing humanity. Much like its two impressive predecessors, War is a visual feast and a film that will certainly translate better over the big screen than it will when it reaches Netflix.
The downside of this approach is that War is extremely light on dialogue and sparse with its action sequences. The story is told so much through the close-up facial expressions of Reeves’ anthropomorphised apes that we unfortunately don’t get much of a war, and even less of a story.
The film’s slowness is reminiscent of The Revenant; were you to replace Leonardo DiCaprio’s battered body for that of an ageing but fearless monkey, you would have found yourself with a very similar film. While War lacks The Revenant’s spiritual undertones, it retains that film’s breathtaking snowy scenery and vengeful energy. Another apt comparison is The Lord of the Rings, a similarly epic trilogy that accentuates its scale with vast mountainous shots and trying circumstances.
War’s pace does not necessarily take away from its strengths, but it does have the habit of frustrating you, especially when you can see where the scene is going. It’s not difficult to predict the next line that will be said; what is a bit more difficult is knowing how long you have to wait before they say it.
There are a few clever aspects to War’s storyline, which are mostly withheld until a five-minute exposition scene an hour into the film, in which Woody Harrelson’s Colonel lends a few soundbites for the trailer. But given how little this plotline is developed, it’s evident that War’s greatest priority is to set the scene for a planet-defining battle that will help us understand that, oh my god, we were wrong… it was earth all along.
When the pace picks up and the warring begins, it’s a pity that War lends itself to countless action-movie clichés: villains deciding to keep the dangerous protagonists alive for no apparent reason; barrages of gunfire hitting everybody except the main characters; and a textbook Deus ex machina climax. It makes for a visually glorious finish, but not necessarily an intellectually satisfying one.
Given how much this franchise has been done to death, it’s excusable that Reeves has opted for big screen grandstanding over science fiction ingenuity. It’s a move that will probably be vindicated by audiences, who have every right to marvel at what is the franchise’s best-looking production. All this means is that War doesn’t necessarily spell the end, and that there’s probably still life left in the Lazarus-esque Planet of the Apes tank.
War for the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas from 26th July through 20th Century Fox.