The idea of mankind being trapped in a world where apes have managed to evolve and turn the tables by dominating humans has proven fascinating ever since Charlton Heston made the first “Planet of the Apes” movie nearly 50 years ago. The new “War for the Planet of the Apes” caps a prequel trilogy that shows how the ape-driven society fell into place, but while it’s undeniably well-made, its political and religious allegories are rather heavy-handed.
“War” begins two years after the end of the prior film, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” with a group of human soldiers looking for ape leader Caesar in the midst of the woods where the apes have been in hiding. After an explosive firefight leads to the apes wiping out most of the troops, Caesar spares a few captured soldiers and sends them back to their leader with the message that if they stop pursuing them, peace will reign.
Instead of agreeing, that leader – known as The Colonel and played by a menacing Woody Harrelson in an obvious homage to Marlon Brando’s psychotic Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” – stages a night raid on the apes’ cave that kills Caesar’s wife and son. He manages to escape Caesar, who for the first time finds himself struggling with the kind of rage that made his former ape rival Koba unforgiving and evil in “Dawn.”
Knowing that they must find a new, distant home now that the soldiers have found their home, Ceasar sends his colony across a desert while embarking on his own mission to find and kill The Colonel. Accompanied by three of his closest confidantes, including the thoughtful orangutan Maurice, he journeys to find the former human-quarantine camp that The Colonel has turned into a base where thousands of apes are forced into slave labor.
Along the way, they team up with another talking ape who knows all about the base, and a young human girl who has been rendered speechless after contracting the simian virus that originally killed off most humans. They find that the enslaved apes are being forced to build a wall against an impending attack from Canadian forces who want to stop the evil Colonel’s ruthless command, setting up a string of both physical and philosophical confrontations.
“War” continues the thoughtful approach found in the new “Apes” trilogy, balancing epic battles with extensive sequences about the conflicting impulses between forgiveness and revenge, mercy and righteous anger. It’s rare to see a blockbuster-level movie explore these kinds of issues in such depth, and director Matt Reeves and his co-writer Mark Bomback (both returning from “Dawn”) should be commended on those fronts.
Yet the portrayal of Harrelson’s Colonel and the troops is often overbearing and laced with imagery that makes American troops unmitigated villains. In one scene, the national anthem is even blasted over the base’s loudspeakers while the soldiers threaten the apes and The Colonel watches with smug satisfaction.
There are also some odd uses of Christian and biblical references, with Caesar and other apes tied to X-shaped wood that is a definite reminder of Jesus on the cross. The Colonel at one key point calls himself “the Alpha and the Omega.” A cross necklace is seen hanging in the background of his private quarters during one of his most threatening rants, which subtly adds to the effect of making an evil figure appear to be driven partly by his Christian beliefs.
That said, the effects that bring the monkeys to life are as stunning as ever, and Andy Serkis’ expressive eyes again bring an incredible emotional depth and soulfulness to Caesar. Steve Zahn adds another layer of emotion and some much-needed humor as the sweet and often overly eager “Bad Ape” - the moniker that the new talking ape gives himself because of what his former trainers called him.
Harrelson is effective as The Colonel, but his constant, calmly expressed contempt for the apes, and his attempts to torture Caesar and others, is often bleakly one-note. While “War” has long thoughtful sequences, the parts where apes are beaten, whipped or otherwise harmed and punished make this a film that is often grimly unpleasant.
“War” is a depressing downer for much of its 140-minute running time, which also makes it one of the summer’s longest films. “Rise” had the visceral thrill of apes rampaging through San Francisco and wreaking havoc on the Golden Gate Bridge, and “Dawn” had some incredible battle scenes between the apes as well as with the humans.
Here, the battle scenes are epically scaled, yet the overwhelming show of force by the military's equipment also makes it more tragic than thrilling. The results may be moving, but they are also often more morose than entertaining -- though if you’re in the mood for a deeper movie than the usual sci-fi or action films released from Hollywood, it is worth seeing.
While “War” doesn’t have much graphic violence, there are quite a few intense moments that definitely make this a movie for older teens and adults to watch, and would be too much for younger children to handle.