Complex Caesar is the heart of ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’


Much like the grim-n-gritty “Logan,” “War for the Planet of the Apes” makes more visual and emotional sense as a recombinant Western movie than a sci-fi flick.

While “Logan” blended “Shane” with samurai movies and put the whole thing in nominal X-Men drag, “War” draws on everything from “Apocalypse Now” to “The Great Escape” and the story of Moses, with plenty of horses trudging through winter snow and mountain forts about to be sacked by an enemy horde.

We pick up with the franchise two years after “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” after Caesar (a terrific Andy Serkis) defeated the treacherous ape Koba to assume leadership of the apes.

A state of war exists between the intellectually elevated apes and the remaining humans. The apes are making preparations to leave Muir Woods, where they have been living for years, and toying with the idea of a new home with copious food and water and no pesky humans.

Humans, on the other hand, have a non-ape problem. The virus that killed off most of them has mutated and is now spreading through the remaining population, removing the power of speech from victims. (See, the apes are now more human-like and the humans are now more ape … OK, yeah, you’re with me.)

Caesar wants a deal with the humans — leave us alone in the woods and we will leave you alone. The humans, led by a fanatical Colonel (Woody Harrelson going full-on Brando in “Apocalypse Now”), aren’t having it and launch a brutal attack on the apes. The slave apes are painted with the word “DONKEY” — the degradation of which is far more upsetting than any of the violence.

Lives are lost, prisoners are taken and Caesar must decide what course of action to take: Liberate his people or finish off the humans perhaps for all.

The Colonel makes the captured apes slaves at his fort — much of the film is more “Internment Camp on the Planet of the Apes” than “War for” anything.

These set pieces are frustrating for two reasons. There isn’t actually as much open combat as the title would imply (nothing here is as riveting as the sight of an ape taking down a helicopter in “Rise” or as arresting as Koba playing the fool then machine-gunning two humans in “Dawn”).

And with the Colonel, there was an opportunity to make him a genuinely complex character; instead of scene of a man struggling with the possibility that humanity might be drawing to a close, we see a cartoonish lunatic.

Elswhere, while the remaining apes head for the promised land, Caesar and a few trusted allies — the kindly orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and his close ally Rocket (Terry Notary) — head off into the Sierra Nevadas to rescue the captured apes.

This is where the “War” looks truly gorgeous (it was shot in glorious 65 mm), full of long shots of apes on horseback across the snow and close-ups of Caesar looking grim. The crew encounters a small girl (Amiah Miller) who may or may not be able to speak and the sweet and damaged Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), whose name comes from what his handlers said as he beat him.

The key to all of this is Serkis’ performance as Caesar. Serkis is the premier motion-capture actor of his age (which is to say, of all time to this point, I suppose) and his Caesar is a fantastic creation — part general, part president, part messiah, a creature of charisma and guts who has seen far, far too much. His expressions are dark and complex, his voice is gruff and canny.

And one has to admire the motion capture effects with the location shooting. Some of this is green-screen but a whole lot of it is not, and the blend of Alberta and British Columbia (which play the California mountains) makes for a thrilling landscape.

For those seeking relentless ape-vs-human combat, the resolution is frustratingly anti-climatic, the coda intriguingly ambiguous. Simultaneously, one wishes for just a little more depth from this entry (the Colonel really is a missed opportunity) but on the whole, “War” is both a reasonable possible conclusion to the ape’s arc and a solid preparation for whatever comes next. After all, in most end times scenarios one roots for the continued existence of humanity.

Here? Eh, not so much.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Movies & TV

From the archives: The curious history of why Americans love s’mores
From the archives: The curious history of why Americans love s’mores

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on May 26, 2010. Sylvester Graham would roll over in his grave if he knew about s’mores. Homemade graham crackers and homemade marshmallows for s’mores. Laura Skelding / American-Statesman The 19th-century minister and diet reformer who invented graham crackers dedicated his life...
How to make a S’mores Skillet Brownie (even if you hate camping)
How to make a S’mores Skillet Brownie (even if you hate camping)

S’mores are always in season if you live in a place like Texas where you can camp all year. There are all kinds of ways you can make s’mores at home to get a taste of that camping experience, but over the weekend, I went a step further and make a s’mores brownie in a cast iron skillet. S’mores inspired this marshmallow-topped...
Weird David Spade mural with Kurt Cobain quote a head-scratcher
Weird David Spade mural with Kurt Cobain quote a head-scratcher

Australian artist Lushsux painted a mural of comedian/actor David Spade on a wall in Linz, Austria last week, alongside a quote that has completely confused social media users. The image of Spade might be pretty good, but there’s just one problem - the quote is wrongly attributed to former Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, who died from a drug...
Long-lost Ed Wood film causes controversy at Fantastic Fest
Long-lost Ed Wood film causes controversy at Fantastic Fest

Controversy erupted yet again during Fantastic Fest on Sunday over the secret screening from the Drafthouse-associated American Genre Film Archive. Festgoers who chose to attend the secret screening over other films showing at that time had no idea they were about to see a long-lost Ed Wood film called “Take It Out in Trade,” which, depending...
Prince Harry visits girlfriend Meghan Markle on set of ‘Suits’
Prince Harry visits girlfriend Meghan Markle on set of ‘Suits’

Prince Harry made a surprise appearance on the set of his girlfriend Meghan Markle’s show “Suits” this week as he visited Toronto. Harry is in town for the Invictus Games, where Markle was spotted showing support for the British royal, and reportedly kept a low-profile on the set of the series. “He was super low-key...
More Stories