Review: 'War for the Planet
of the Apes'

With plenty of action and plenty of heart, 'War' is top notch 'Apes'
The latest in the 'Apes' franchise delivers top-notch acting and timely allegory.

Today's Blockbusters are generally a chunky blend of eight previous movies—Transformers: The Last Knight seemed to be 10 of them. Comparing movies to food is the hack's crutch, but Matt Reeves' excellent War for the Planet of the Apes is much more like a parfait made of several delicious levels.

In their redwoods hideout, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes hold out against an attack by the humans—muddy 'Nam-era style grunts in a rainforest, with mottos on their helmets such as "Monkey Killer" and "Bedtime for Bonzo." Gorilla scouts (slurred as "Donkeys" because of Donkey Kong) lead the way for the humans, in a skirmish of spears and arrows versus gunpower. After winning the battle, Caesar gets word of a possible homeland in the desert.

What starts as a war movie becomes a Western, complete with Caesar as a grim Chimp Eastwood on horseback. Caesar even acquires a Walter Brennan sidekick in the form of the piebald, cracked Bad Ape (Steve Zahn, demonstrating boggling synthespian skills). As they ride out to find a new homeland, they adopt Nova (Amiah Miller), a helpless mute girl; it's like the version of The Searchers that film fans always dream about, told from the Comanches' point of view. Then to Spartacus as Caesar harrows a slave-labor camp. We see graffiti declaring the camp Ape-pocalypse Now. Woody Harrelson brilliantly apes Brando, as a bald, beyond-the-beyond Colonel in charge.

Finally, War resolves itself as a hairier version of The Ten Commandments, complete with a twist on the Red Sea inundation. Also included are multiple borrowings from the original sequence of five Planet of the Apes movies 1968-73, with some particularly fine nods to the most despairing of all the ape movies, the Dr. Strangelove-like Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

Rather than looking like a dog-eared swipe-file, this terrific ape-opera honors the originals. It has the freshness of a story you're hearing for the first time. Director Reeves' smooth flow of images is as lucid as George Miller was in the Mad Max opuses. Some of the dialogue is in subtitles through sign language. There's an uncommon amount of face-reading to be done in this movie, which demonstrates why silent film is considered the purest form of cinema. Miller's pantomime is superb, a reminder of not just how beautiful a child can be, but how unearthly.

The apes here have dignity and innocence. The moon-face of the orangutan Maurice (played by Karin Konoval) fills the screen, as he offers Nova a rag doll to play with; it's more of a punch than anything in The Jungle Book. These apes are the kind of noble savages that few film viewers could possibly enjoy in human form.

By this point, Caesar is becoming more comfortable with his gift of language—there are inflections in what he says. His leadership is everything you'd want in a general—magnanimous and intelligent, and plagued at night by conscience. The ghost of the scar-faced Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is his tempter, smiling at him, taunting him with how ready Caesar is to break the law: "Ape not kill ape."

The political satire in this Apes movie is as timely as this film is—and is likely, timeless. ("Why are we building this wall?" asks an enslaved chimp, stacking boulders.) There has never been a cycle of movies as strange or as pessimistic as this half-century long series—where the crossed temporal streams let tomorrow's sapient ape go to yesterday and change our present, and where the ultimate penalty of human viciousness is for our race to be reduced to the state of Jonathan Swift's Yahoos.

War closes the loop, with the end of the Age of Man in sight. Going forward, it goes backward. It sets the stage for the astronaut Taylor's arrival from the skies in the 1968 Planet of the Apes, and the shocking news he will bring—news as unbelievable as the theory of evolution is to the religious—of the apes' long-ago subordination to humanity.

War for the Planet of the Apes
PG-13, 140 Mins.

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