War is hell, and so is humankind, in this darkest chapter of the “Planet of the Apes” prequels. The last in the trilogy and the first told solely from the apes’ perspective, it follows simian ruler Caesar (the endlessly talented Andy Serkis) on a rage-fueled revenge mission that threatens his standing as the apes’ diplomatic leader.
Apologies to Charlton Heston loyalists, but “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a good example of how today’s movies sometimes beat the hell out of the oldies. The sophisticated characters and wrenching emotions created with motion-capture technology so eclipse those rubber ape masks in the originals that it seems wrong to even group them in the same franchise. That said, director Matt Reeves (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) certainly pays homage to a number of classic war films here; look no further than the opening scene for a hint of “Apocalypse Now.”
The film begins as soldiers with slogan-painted helmets — “Monkey Killer,” “Bedtime for Bonzo” — wend their way through thick and ominous greenery. Their commander, Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), is essentially the film’s Kurtz. He’s on a “purity” quest to rid the world of both apes and virus-infected people who’ve lost the power of speech, in the latest iteration of the simian flu that killed off most of the human population. But his army isn’t above using renegade gorillas, followers of Caesar’s late enemy Koba, as grunts: The humans call them “donkeys” and make them do the heavy lifting.
Following a tragic battle in the apes’ habitat, Caesar sets off to confront the Colonel at his military base, accompanied by a few comrades. They include Maurice (Karin Konoval), the orangutan whose wide, gentle face was so memorable in the last two films, and whose power of speech is apparently still developing. Along the way, they pick up two additional travelers: a mute, orphaned little girl (Amiah Miller), adopted as a daughter figure by the group, and a timorous chimp (Steve Zahn) who calls himself “Bad Ape” from his years living in a zoo. Bad Ape is the closest the film comes to lightheartedness: He’s a childlike soul who looks comical in the human clothes he favors, but he’s also deeply traumatized: “Humans got sick. Apes got smart. Humans kill apes,” he says, watery-eyed.
Once Caesar reaches the military base and realizes his tribe has been captured and imprisoned there, it’s an epic and heartbreaking second half that broadly references the Holocaust, internment camps, refugees and even the Bible: At one point, Caesar is strung up on crisscrossed wooden planks and left for dead. Reeves also works in more topical commentary with a hulking structure the Colonel has the apes laboring to build: “His wall is madness,” one chimp observes. “It won’t save him.” Yes, the imagery and the nonstop horror are a little too heavy-handed. Also, the film’s basically void of any sympathetic humans within the base. It’s not as if we don’t know who we’re rooting for here, but would it have killed them to give a single soldier a moment of pause before gunning down a row of fleeing chimpanzees? He might as well have subtitled the thing: “Who are the real savages here?”
At one point, the Colonel and Caesar have a riveting one-on-one discussion about the enduring conflict and its possible outcomes. “You’re impressive,” the Colonel keeps saying, as if unable to grasp that Caesar is really sentient. Relatedly, there were some in my screening audience who giggled throughout the entire thing, as if seeing chimps riding horses, or wearing manacles and breaking rocks with pickaxs, was simply a series of zany animal-show stunts. They couldn’t have done a better job of proving the film’s point: People can be willfully blind to the humanity in any species but their own.