The war in War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t so much between humans and apes as it is between simian leader Caesar (played via motion capture by Andy Serkis) and Colonel J. Wesley McCullough (Woody Harrelson)—the latter the rogue and ruthless commander of a splinter group of soldiers determined to preserve humanity by annihilating the apes, who seemed poised to take control of Earth after a virus called the Simian Flu has decimated mankind. As the story begins, Caesar suffers a heartbreaking loss at the hands of McCullough, and that devastation causes him to rethink his peace-loving ways and seek revenge…not against all humans, but against the cold-blooded killer colonel. From there, Caesar tracks his nemesis through blustery, snow-covered terrain, along with a small band of loyal followers and a mute, orphaned human girl they take under their wing. The journey to find McCullough encompasses the great majority of the film’s lumbering, self-important midsection, and is reminiscent of the vengeful quest undertaken by Hugh Glass, Leonardo DiCaprio’s embittered character from The Revenant, to find his son’s murderer.
In fact, much of War is cobbled together from other (better) movies. It’s a patchwork of The Revenant, Schindler’s List, Apocalypse Now, The Ten Commandments, and The Great Escape. When Caesar finally locates the shaven-headed McCullough, he’s shocked to find that the crazed, Kurtz-like colonel (“Ape-ocalypse Now” is graffitied on a wall, in case we miss the resemblance) oversees a concentration camp filled with apes. His singular mission to kill the colonel suddenly morphs into a greater cause: to free his friends and bring down not only McCullough, but his savage army as well.
Sadly, all of this sounds more exciting than it actually is. Director Matt Reeves and co-screenwriter Mark Bomback take this humans-vs.-apes story oh so seriously, which squelches much of the excitement and adventure. They never miss an opportunity to pull at our heartstrings, with one painfully poignant scene after another; these “touching” interludes drag the movie down and bloat the running time to an interminable 140 minutes. Of course, all of the humans, aside from the mute girl, are portrayed as evil, while all of the apes are pure, upright, and good. Yes, Caesar gives in to his dark side, but the filmmakers bail him out of the moral dilemma he’s mired in when it comes time to enact revenge, thus allowing him to remain unsullied. It feels like cheating, and frankly, so does the ending. The actual war, with helicopters hovering, guns blasting, and explosions erupting, comes in the final reel and is primarily between McCullough’s soldiers and what’s left of the U.S. military, who are out to terminate the colonel (with extreme prejudice, one assumes). When the military are finished with McCullough’s forces, they turn their sights on the apes. But instead of a final confrontation, the filmmakers once again bail out the primates with a quick resolution that defies credibility.
War isn’t without its pleasures. The motion-capture effects, makeup, and CGI are all exemplary; and Serkis, if a bit too dour, is still excellent as the towering Moses-like figure determined to lead his flock to a rumored promised land. The other standout is Steve Zahn as Bad Ape, a zoo escapee who learned to speak English from his former handlers. Bad Ape (that’s what the zookeepers called him) is a brilliant creation, and Zahn’s performance is hilarious and heartfelt; the character is so endearing he should be given his own movie. That brings us to Harrelson, but unfortunately, the gifted actor is badly miscast. He simply lacks the gravitas the role requires, as his McCullough is more just-plain-crazy Mickey from Natural Born Killers than mad genius Kurtz. He’s even given a Kurtz-like speech in which he defends his actions, but the lengthy monologue lacks conviction. Try as he might, Harrelson just can’t pull it off.
For fans of the series, War is obviously a must-see; just don’t go in expecting the epic ape-human battle for the ages that the posters and trailers suggest. This War is more somber than exciting.