War for the Planet of the Apes
by Toby Woollaston
Contents don’t always match what is printed on the tin. War for the Planet of the Apes’ lengthy title (let’s just call it WPA) and marketing material suggest that you’re likely to be be subjected to two and a half hours of bloodshed, courtesy of a certain Wellington digital effects company. But WPA is far more introspective than advertised. Sure, it’s not La La Land, but WPA has a lot less “war” in it than we’re led to believe. Critically, comparisons have been made with Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Famously, Ford Coppola reworked Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, by expressing its themes of colonialism, self-discovery and the meaninglessness of evil against the backdrop of the Vietnam war. In WPA the astute viewer will pick up on this comparison fairly quickly, but for those not familiar with Coppola’s film, a wall graffiti’d with “Ape-pocalypse Now” is plain for all to see.
WPA picks up where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes left off. Chief ape Caesar (voiced and motion-captured by Andy Serkis) certainly hasn’t lightened up since his last outing. He’s not the kind of chap you’d invite over to liven up a dinner party, but he wears his pouty face and moody Batman style voice for good reason — his wife and son have been killed by a sadistic human known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). As Caesar and four other riders “head up river” to hunt down the rogue Colonel, they pick up a mute human girl (Amiah Miller) who provides the film with a welcome human counter-balance to the Colonel’s corruption.
WPA begins as a war film, then becomes a western borrowing heavily from the likes of True Grit, and then descends unabashedly into a POW escape caper. Yes, its a mosaic of different genres that somehow blend into a gripping whole.
What is extraordinary is a narrative which focusses on the ape’s world, with human considerations being ushered into the margins. The plausibility of ape protagonists who communicate predominantly in sign language, with the only significant humans being signifiers of evil, or relegated to speechless vessels, must’ve been a hard sell to the studio execs. But WPA presents its ambitions with total confidence and is bursting at the seams with plausible characters who are brought to life with perhaps the most stunningly believable digital effects to date. When the Colonel stares at Caesar and says “My God. Look at your eyes. Almost human”, it is as much a meta-comment on the incredible digital work as it is on human-simian relations.
Its many parts are curiously engaging and despite the misleading marketing, WPA culminates as a compelling block-buster option these school holidays.
You can see my published reviews here.