Director Matt Reeves, in his two sequels to the prequel to the PLANET OF THE APES series, has achieved some sort of cinematic miracle. I don’t think we as a society have properly acknowledged how incredible and unlikely these movies are. These are prebootquel-sequel-summer-event-special-effects-movies that are bleak, heavy and emotional, yet fun to watch. They feel like they’re based in the real world, yet they have us accepting apes that can speak English – not in a BABE talking-animal-movie type of way, but in a “some of them have evolved enough to learn how to do it” sort of way. Tentative, with odd rhythms, and economical use of words. It’s like a trick that they’re still mastering, putting great effort into each syllable, having to catch their breath between words. There’s still something creepy about this demonstration of intelligence from animals that are in a war with humans like us. Yet Reeves gets us to root for them – for their survival, for their moral choices.
It’s almost beside the point that somehow Reeves films a bunch of dudes in weird suits out in the woods and Weta turns them into photo-realistic animated characters. Most of the main characters and extras are computer generated, but I just think of it as live action while I’m watching it. Remember when it seemed like the Achilles heel of motion capture would always be the creepy, doll-like eyes? Well, here we have Caesar (played by the Marlon Brando of mo-cap, Andy Serkis), a performance that’s at least 25% intense stare-down. It’s as if all the soul and humanity missing from all the eyeballs in THE POLAR EXPRESS were set aside to load into his.
And how many animal characters are as complex as Caesar? The test subject ape who led the zoo primates to escape to the Redwoods in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and reject the vengeful ways of Koba in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is, like a human leader, not somebody you’re gonna agree with 100% of the time.
At the start of WAR, two years after the humans vs. apes battle looming at the end of DAWN, the humans treat Caesar like Osama bin Laden on the run, a mysterious villain they’ve heard all about but never seen with their own eyes. They trek through the woods, anti-ape catch phrases scrawled on their army helmets (one says “BEDTIME FOR BONZO,” which is an A+ racist slogan for this world, I must say). Some of them come across a hidden ape stronghold and are captured even though they brought guns to an arrow fight. They’re tied up and Caesar marches in flanked by gorilla bodyguards, looks at them, doesn’t even have to say anything. It’s very believable when one of the humans blurts out “You’re him!” You can immediately see that this ape is someone.
Like a true hero, Caesar spares the humans’ lives. His intentions for the “donkey” – the soldiers’ degrading term for the apes who willingly work as gun-loaders and equipment carriers for them – are more ambiguous. He says that these apes followed Koba, and fear what he’ll do to them, and doesn’t deny that they should. The traitor is taken separately, but escapes before they can do whatever they were gonna do to him. And though Caesar speaks of peace, a deadly attack on his kind inspires him to leave his people on a stubborn mission of revenge, only aided by a few loyal apes who insist he not go alone. He has visions of Koba (still played by Toby Kebbell of DEAD MAN’S SHOES and FANTASTIC FOUR) as he starts down a similar path of bloodthirst.
Luckily for Caesar’s soul and our entertainment, he’s accompanied by his old friend Maurice (Karin Konoval, BLACK X-MAS). That’s the wise Bornean orangutan who once signed the immortal catchphrase “Why cookie Rocket?” And Rocket (Terry Notary, also King Kong in KONG: SKULL ISLAND and head alien/movement coach in ATTACK THE BLOCK) is also there for support. These guys go way back, they did time together.
The group grows WIZARD OF OZ style as they meet two major new characters: a mute little human girl (introducing Amiah Miller) who Maurice insists on taking care of, and a balding chimp from another zoo who calls himself Bad Ape. This is a very good performance by Steve Zahn (JOY RIDE), at times providing the laughs of your usual funny Steve Zahn character, other times transcending into this unusual animal with limited speech abilities that seems unlike anything you’d think he’d be able to play.
The group’s target: Woody Harrelson (BUNRAKU) as a crazed colonel who’s definitely in that too common “you see, it’s like APOCALYPSE NOW” vein, but he might still be the most nuanced human in this series that gives all the dimension to the ones with fur. When he explains himself we can understand his motives, wrong-headed as they may be. And I think many of the grunt characters are sympathetic, or at least understandable. They seem like scared people stuck in a bad situation. On the other hand, the way they treat not only the ape prisoners but even their ape comrades – pushing their heads down to establish dominance, for example – makes us root to see them get blown the fuck up.
Which many of them do when they find themselves looking down a barrel of monkeys. Sorry, that’s offensive. Our ape heroes discover (SPOILER) the Colonel’s P.O.W. camp where he’s forcing apes to build a wall! Caesar deduces what it’s all about, but also becomes a prisoner, isolated in his own cage. It’s UNDISPUTED II! Well, I guess not really. More like an acknowledgement that the zoo escape was the best part of RISE. When they start using the APES TOGETHER STRONG signal I got goosebumps. It’s like if Obama turned completely disillusioned and dejected and a crowd started going come on man, “Yes we can! Yes we can!”, trying to inspire him with his own inspirational quote.
One thing I didn’t expect is that they start setting up the situation in the original 1968 PLANET OF THE APES where humans don’t talk. Some viewers seem to accept the Colonel’s description of the virus turning humans primitive, but I think he’s an unreliable narrator. Nova (as they name the little girl) and her dad don’t seem primitive, and we never see anybody who does. In PLANET Taylor rocks the ape world by speaking and proving that humans are intelligent. Don’t make the same assumptions as the bourgeoisie apes of 1968.
Reeves originally established himself as a writer. Of course he will always be most famous for co-writing UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY with Richard Hatem and co-creating that tv show called Felicity or whatever with J.J. Abrams which I have heard is pretty highly regarded if I’m not confusing it with something else but I think it’s that one, Felicity. This (like DAWN) he co-wrote with Mark Bomback (LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD). But damned if he hasn’t turned out to be a topnotch director who combines high level technical wizardry with great acting performances (via technology!), slick visual storytelling, and (oh shit…) ideas. Like, despite movie tradition, Reeves is smart enough to structure it so that the showdown with the “Big Bad” Colonel happens before the climax. Once that’s done with we still have to deal with the much more interesting side story of a “donkey” named Red (Ty Olsson, CHAOS [the Statham one]) who we have seen struggling with the side he chose.
I enjoyed Reeves’ feature directational debut CLOVERFIELD, but LET ME IN convinced me he was more than we’d bargained for. Though I can understand people turning their nose up to it as an unnecessary remake of a beloved recent film, I think it’s a great piece of filmmaking. And then DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES ran with what others had created in RISE and made a much stronger, more unique film that I think didn’t get enough credit. And WAR is on the same level.
It’s funny, when Ben Affleck dropped out of directing THE BATMAN, I wondered if there were any directors I thought would do a good Batman movie, and Reeves was who I came up with. Then, weirdly, he ended up getting hired. (See THE SECRET.) Hopefully one day he’ll turn his attention to material of his own creation, but for now he’s one of the best there is at that modern Hollywood skill of crafting great films with existing characters and worlds.
He might be done with the APES, because this does seem like it would work as a final chapter. I don’t really want to see them get up to the time period of the original movie, which I thought was not too far off judging by this girl being named Nova. But Bomback told Inverse that that’s not the case:
“She’s not supposed to be the character from the ‘68 film, but here we see how that name gets introduced into the universe of these movies. And…hundreds of years later, someone else is going to wind up being named Nova.”
The generational nature of the original APES series makes me want to see what will happen when Caesar’s son – who is not the same Cornelius – grows up. I mean, let’s get these apes wearing weird futuristic clothes and shit, am I right?
No, I don’t think I am right. But I love these movies.
P.S. There was a well-circulated accusation on Twitter that WAR does not contain any speaking parts for women. That’s only true if you discount three female characters for communicating with sign language rather than speech, so it’s kind of offensive. But the point being made – that this series doesn’t have strong female characters, or even many females at all – is unfortunately very true. It’s especially weird that they have Judy Greer as Cornelia in DAWN and WAR and give her so little to do (even if she took it as a cameo just to be in an APES movie). Think of what a crucial character Zira is in the original APES series. She’s kind of the lead! If they end up making more they better straighten that shit out.
I also want to mention that I read that tweet right before seeing the movie, and it distracted me a little while watching it, and it kind of annoyed me. I could say that it’s because of its exaggeration or because of the strident way it dismisses a powerful work of art for not conforming to an ideological checklist. But if I’m honest at least part of it is because I like this movie, and it feels like I’m being told I’m a bad person for that, or not living up to the values I perceive myself as having. It feels bad and I think that feeling leads to alot of dumb conflicts.
A couple days later I realized that deep down there was a feeling that it’s an inconvenience to me to be told I have to think about this movie in a different way. I’d rather be able to enjoy it for what it is, unencumbered. But I shouldn’t worry about that because it’s okay to be challenged. Important, in fact.
I was taking it personally when I shouldn’t have. I know what I believe in and that I can respect this movie as a work of art while agreeing that there’s no reason for it to be as male dominated as it is. So I need to check myself before I wreck myself, I’m starting with the man in the mirror, make that change, etc. Now more than ever those of us who care about this stuff need to stop fighting over small things when we agree on the big ones.
In other words, APES. TOGETHER. STRONG.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.