Like the original series upon which they’re based, the rebooted Apes movies have become increasingly serious affairs. Unlike those films, these are easy to take seriously because they aren’t populated by actors buried under heavy prosthetics. But beyond the exemplary effects work, these films also have a tendency to emphasize very complex cultural themes that cut far deeper than Charlton Heston’s accidental trip to the Statue of Liberty.
And make no mistake, War for the Planet of the Apes deals with some heavy topics — ranging from fascism and fundamentalism to a thinly veiled allusion to a Trumpian border wall. Through it all, the movie maintains its momentum by crafting a simian-centric story that remains surprisingly human in scale.
The third installment in the franchise, and director Matt Reeves’ second at the helm following 2014’s Dawn, War occasionally risks capsizing in a sea of grandiose influences. Prime primate Caesar, once again played with remarkable depth by returning star Andy Serkis, might as well be Josey Wales and Moses rolled into one. Beyond the biblicality, this is a story world in which overt references to Apocalypse Now and a subtle nod to Full Metal Jacket coexist alongside a sly shoutout to Ronald Reagan vehicle Bedtime for Bonzo. But despite the title and obvious war film influences, War is really more of a Western than anything else, and it’s at its best when it sticks to Caesar’s revenge and redemption arc.
Serkis’ performance is truly laudable, Steve Zahn is at his least offensive as the (much-needed) comic relief, and Woody Harrelson does his best Brando as the clearly Kurtz-inspired antagonist, simply known as The Colonel. Solid performances, however, are only part of the equation here. Reeves’ film, co-written by Mark Bomback, packs a lot into its 2-hour-20-minute running time without dragging or feeling overstuffed, an almost incomprehensible feat for a modern tentpole blockbuster. The screenplay’s pacing is a masterpiece of precision, even if its character beats occasionally seem contrived, and it still manages to develop connective tissue to narrative elements of the original films amid all its epic world-building.
You probably already know by now whether a dystopian monkey movie is in your future, so there’s little point in trying to persuade the ape-averse. It should suffice to say that War is a striking accomplishment of CGI artistry that hits the requisite midsummer action notes while still incorporating the literary high-mindedness that first made sci-fi movies relevant as something more than serial cheapies for the kids matinee crowd.
It’s not a perfect film by any means, but the very fact that a film about talking chimps can do a better job of managing motivations and character arcs than many prestige melodramas warrants a recommendation in my book. At the very least, it’s reassured me regarding Reeves’ involvement in Ben Affleck’s upcoming Batman movie. PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images. Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.