War for the Planet of the Apes: A Beautiful Quagmire, by Tyler Smith

13 Jul

Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest in the recent Apes series, is a marvel of special effects. Even in the modern age, when CG images are commonplace, audiences can mostly still tell when something isn’t quite tangible. Perhaps its a blurred edge or movement that seems a bit too fluid. In this film, however, the computer-generated apes are so deeply textured that it often feels like we can just reach out and touch their matted hair. It could be that the realism of these effects are due in part to the performances that they are paired with. War for the Planet of the Apes features a number of well-developed characters, played with powerful understatement by Andy Serkis, Steve Zahn, and several others. The overall impact of all of this is a summer movie that feels much more grounded than the standard blockbuster. And yet with all of this going for it, I still found myself slightly dissatisfied by the scope of the film. This is a film that features armies attacking one another, large explosions, riveting battles, and even an avalanche. So why does the film wind up feeling so… small?

The story is simple enough. Following the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Serkis) and his society of hyper-intelligent apes are besieged by a rapidly-dwindling human army, led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). Caesar and his friends only want to be left alone, but the humans are just too fearful of what he represents, so the fight rages on.

This is all perfectly fine, but this exact story has already been told. Dawn featured almost all of these elements, ending on a note that seemed to suggest one final, climactic conflict in the near future. The random battles here and there would finally give way to an all-out war, with the winner being able to claim the planet as theirs. As it is, War for the Planet of the Apes feels like the story of just another battle, with the actual war still to come. Perhaps Matt Reeves meant for the film to have a sense of finality to it – and it does, to a degree – but it still feels like we have further to go. It could be that the studio, always eager for another successful sequel, encouraged Reeves to leave just enough room for another film and, with it, yet another battle.

This is nothing new for the Planet of the Apes franchise. It is often hard to believe that there were five movies and a television series between 1968 and 1975. And yet somehow those films each felt like they brought a genuinely new development to the story, thus justifying their own inclusion in the series. The recent films, as emotionally-effective as they are, seem content to take one story – the emergence of ape domination of the world – and draw it out over several films, with possibly more still to come. This ultimately leads me to feel like we haven’t really made much progress by the end of this film. The events feel too specific, with very few worldwide implications. So, I guess what I’m saying, as strange as it may sound, is that I actually want this subtle, character-driven science fiction film – which is such a rarity during the summer months – to be bigger and grander. Somehow, to suggest such a thing makes me feel like an impatient little kid, begging for dessert after being made to eat his vegetables. But, then, I suppose vegetables aren’t actually very filling. And neither is this film.

There is, as mentioned, plenty to recommend about the film, and I’d say that overall I really enjoyed it. There are several quiet moments, in which the camera lingers on Caesar or his friends, as they contemplate the consequences of their actions. This allows Serkis and the other actors room to really explore their characters, so aggressively backed into a situation they can only fight their way out of. Moments like these are what set the recent Apes movies apart from other popcorn films, in which character development is often perfunctory at best. Harrelson also shines as a villain who seems sadistic, but whose motivations really aren’t that outlandish; we can relate to him more than we are likely comfortable admitting. And while his big exposition scene does seem to go on forever, Harrelson handles it like a pro, always imbuing his character with more humanity than we’re used to seeing from Apes villains, regardless of their species.

The action sequences are well-handled, especially the opening skirmish. Utilizing the naturalistic environments and the oppressive darkness of the forest, Reeves amps up the paranoia, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats to see what might happen next. It was recently announced that Reeves will be taking over for Ben Affleck as the director of The Batman. If this film is any kind of indicator, we can rest easy knowing that at least the action elements of that film will be exciting and well-executed.

So would I recommend War for the Planet of the Apes? Very much so. Like the previous films in the series, it often feels like a breath of fresh air when compared to other action blockbusters. Matt Reeves does a good job of establishing a quickly-deteriorating world, filling it with interesting characters, and then plunking the audience down right in the middle of it. The problem is that, once we’re there, we tend to see the same things from one film to the next, always being promised that we’re going somewhere, but never really seeming to arrive. The vehicle may be pretty, but it’s still just spinning its wheels.

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