War for the Planet of the Apes—The war of the title, between apes and humans, has been going on for a few years as this, the third of the latter-day Apes movies, begins. It’s been long enough that human soldiers write sick jokes like “BEDTIME FOR BONZO” on their helmets, and that slang specific to the war has arisen, like “Donkey” for a turncoat ape who acts as a guide to the humans.
Caesar, still voiced and performed behind “motion capture” by Andy Serkis, is still in charge of the ape stronghold in what used to be Northern California. Initially a wise leader who acts only in defense of his fellow apes, he’s turned bitter and vengeful by a particularly outrageous human attack led by an ape-loathing Colonel (Woody Harrelson). Caesar leads a small band of apes, of diverse species, on a retaliatory mission.
Along the way, their band picks up another ape that talks, and a human that doesn’t. “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), a zoo veteran, assumed that was his name because of how often he heard it. A little orphaned human girl (Amiah Miller) is given a name from a piece of Chevy wreckage: Nova. She’s been made mute by a virus that’s starting to afflict the human population, which the Colonel fears is a sign of a downward evolutionary slide for his species. Eventually, Caesar and his pals end up among the cruel Colonel’s prisoners.
I appreciated the nervy, barely-subtextual topical political anger under the material—the Colonel actually forces the enslaved apes to build a wall. There are religious overtones, too; Caesar seems overtly identified with Moses here. Harrelson has a gleeful good time playing the spiteful maniac Colonel, and once again Serkis gives a grave, scowling performance right through the CGI effects. Their big confrontation is the film’s dramatic high point.
This turbulent, overcast movie seemed stronger to me than 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but not as witty and exciting as 2011’s initial “reboot,” Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Both of the two sequels are pretty somber affairs; they aren’t without some humor, but neither had the same sense of nasty, subversive fun at seeing humankind humbled by our downtrodden simian cousins as Rise—or, indeed, as the 1968 original.
The apes, Caesar included, are really downtrodden here. They suffer mightily in the single-minded Colonel’s brutal captivity, and between this and the movie’s wintry atmosphere and its austere moral scheme—everything gets worse for everybody when Caesar becomes vengeful—it gets a bit grim and wearying. Ultimately, after some POW-escape thriller suspense, the apes do make a stand, and it brings this mature, reflective trilogy to a satisfying, well-earned climax, but it doesn’t give us this payoff easily. War is hell, you might say.