Apocalypse Now is the new Spartacus. Certainly, declaring yourself to be a film in imitation of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam war classic seems very much in vogue this year.
For those who found the poster for Kong: Skull Island ‘on the nose’ just wait until you see the shot for shot likenesses to be found in War for the Planet of the Apes, the third in Matt Reeves’ Planet of the Apes reboot series. Heck, at one point – getting one up on hacks ready with the puns – the slogan: ‘Ape-ocalypse Now’ can be seen sprayed over the walls of an underground tunnel. Unlike Kong, however, Reeves’ film borrows both style and substance in his homage. War is a hugely satisfying round off to a superlative trilogy.
Originally based on the novel by Pierre Boulle, the Planet of the Apes films have always held about them an intellectuality done no justice by glib comments about primates on horseback. Burton may have missed the soul behind the eyes in 2001 but it’s a franchise strength that’s been there since Schaffer’s original. The image of Andy Serkis’ chimpanzee Caesar astride a black stallion in War, flanked by the likewise saddled Maurice the Bornean orangutan (Karin Konoval), no doubt remains as ridiculously bold as ever but is entirely superfluous to what this is all about. It’s the ‘fi’ to the franchise’s ‘sci’.
Surprising expectations is a theme dutifully continued in War for the Planet of the Apes. If anything, this third by Reeves is the most sedate of the trilogy. Sedate in action, that is, rather than emotion. It is a film brilliantly astute to the realities of war, focusing on the casualties of the periphery rather than succumbing to blockbusting fascination with the gore of battles themselves. War for the Planet of the Apes is more Schindler’s List than Hurt Locker and so much the better for it.
The plot picks up amid the settling dust of the destructive conclusion to Dawn, in which a US military force had been summoned to help crush the ape colonies once and for all. Except, the ‘war’ has complicated rather since Caesar helped plunge Toby Kebbel’s masochistic Koba to his death. Koba’s allies now fight alongside the humans, who have to turned against themselves as the simian flu virus which inspired the advancement of the apes’ intelligence mutates to the effect of devolving human sentience. This is the birth of the mute human race first discovered by Charles Heston back in 1968. After a rather marvellous opening forest fight, which, alongside an opening title recap, thrillingly channels Star Wars: Episode VI, Reeves (writing once again with Mark Bomback) removes the action to the hideout of the apes. ‘I fight only to protect apes’ says a weary Caesar.
A terrific score by Michael Giacchino captures the air of overbearing mournfulness that hereon envelops the film. An attack by Woody Harrleson’s unnamed Colonel – so very Kurtz – inspires the colony to pilgrimage in search of a new and war-free home. Caesar, meanwhile, is propelled into a True Grit via The Revenant revenge arc that will see him pick up parallel human/ape companions Nova, a mute human girl (Amiah Miller), and Steve Zahn’s Dobby-meets-Gollum Bad Ape, along the way. Back in the human camp, the Colonel is imprisoning apes and forcing them to build a great wall, intended to act as a barrier. How very topical – will it be made of glass? When Caesar’s colony winds up in the facility, Reeves shifts War from western road movie to a Great Escape styled POW picture. There’s a biblical essence too as Caesar finds himself bound to a cross.
Reeves and Bomback have discussed the ‘million movies’ the pair watched in preparation for embarking on War. Bridge on the River Kwai and Ben Hur were among these, as was, presumably, Apocalypse Now itself. Indeed, if War is at any fault it is that its panoptic of influences occasionally feel somewhat overwhelming. Such a wealth of homage threatens at times to dissolve to imitation, stealing away some of its predecessors startling originality. That said, the film makes for a satiably fascinating watch on its own hairy hands and feet. Complexity lives in debates over humanity’s relationship to the planet (‘Nature has been punishing us for our arrogance’) and its a thoroughly brave blockbuster that substitutes large stretches of dialogue for signed and grunted discourse.
It is so easy to heap plaudits on the, admittedly awe-inspiring affects, that the physical work on the film may be left vulnerable to being overlooked. In lesser films, that is; not here. So strong is Serkis’ performance in War, his characterisation so masterfully and subtly advanced on his previous appearances, that he just about does the impossible and out shines the computers. Let it be known that Serkis is more than simply the film’s pioneer of motion capture, he’s its driving force through and through. ‘My God, look at your eyes,’ says the Colonel, ‘almost human’. He’s wrong of course, for these eyes are so much more than human.