Down for the count

If War for the Planet of the Apes were the last of the series, it would be a sad place to end. It's pointlessly grim and Orwellian, is gray and limited in its settings (most of it takes place essentially in a vast mountainside prison), and it has few distinctive characters. It also leaves many things unexplained. Mostly it is an attempt to mimic the finale of Apolcalypse Now, with Woody Harrelson as The Colonel, a boorish, less mysterious Kurtz, more like a mercenary than a doomed madman. This is of course a far less imaginative film than Coppolal's great saga. The Colonel presides over a stock fascist military camp where the Viet Kong are apes made to slave without food or water on a wall to protect The Colonel and his men from the invasion of other humans.

Except that Woddy Harrelson gets a lot of screen time and the longest speech (he's a tiresome windbag), this movie is from the point of view of the apes. The real attention is on Caesar (Andy Serkis), the ape leader who stays behind when the other apes escape, in order to avenge the death of his wife and child and winds up a prisoner of The Colonel while a small band of his followers plan an escape for him and the slave-apes at the mercy of The Colonel's totalitarian scheme. In his revenge mission, Caesar admits he's being as bad as Koba, the ape who earlier led a vindictive rebellion. It looks as though both leads have been dumbed down, Caesar as a dogged avenger, and The Colonel as a crude Kurtz. Winding up with Woody Harrelson in charge is truly hell.

This ape-centric film might seem a bold move. And perhaps it might have been, for a less mainstream picture. War is also shot in a distinctive monochrome style with extreme closeups and lots of blurry details (perhaps ape-vision?). The trouble is that the series conceived by Pierre Boulle in his 1963 sci-fi novel La Plančte des singes really comes to life when there are lots of humans and lots of apes. This time there are lots of expensively performance-capture-acting simians - something the early films got along quite well without - and that's fine. Admittedly the earlier film apes looked like humans in costumes. But are we looking for drama or special effects? This time, only two humans have names, and only two apes actually speak. This made me miss the campy original 1970's Planet of the Apes movies with their enjoyable cast members, Charleton Heston, Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Daly, et al.

But the re-conception of the series in 2011 with Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes as a mutation creating smart apes on earth was a a great idea and made for a classic, lively sci-fi movie, enriched through the new much more sophisticated motion-capture apes. The multiplying apes, engaging in a showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge, used the technology to spectacular effect, and was great stuff.

This was where I parted company with the critics, because they preferred Matt Reeves' grim, heavy-handed 2014 followup, Dawn of Planet of the Apes to Wyatt's lighter, more economical film. (Back then, Caesar was a cute pet; now, after the grim Dawn, he's a world-weary warlord.) This time Reeves and his writers have gone for something even grimmer and more heavy-handed. There's one spot of humor, provided by "Bad Ape," the studiously unheroic zoo ape rescued by Caesar, enlivened by the performance of Steve Zahn.

This new "War" is only a piece of the narrative leaving the larger story unshown and incompletely explained - particularly how the simian virus has worked on humans. It's said to have robbed them of their intelligence and, lately, even made them mute. But how come there are a lot of human solders working with intelligence (if the military kind) for The Colonel? And what of the little girl the apes with Caesar rescue (Amiah Miller), who's mute, but obviously intelligent? The Matt Reeves "Apes" show signs of much more going into tech aspects than story line. David Edelstein hit in on the nose when he called this movie "both alienating and sappy" and with its biblical finale "an awesome, dull movie." And that sappy finale is slow and unsatisfying. It's hard to understand how critics have liked it so much and one wonders if the public will really agree.

War for the Planet of the Apes, 140 mins., debuted the UK and Ireland 11 July 2017; US theatrical release 14 July 2017.