Empty Balcony: War for the Planet of the Apes

This film is excruciatingly inane, and at the same time an achievement. It is a story of stark moral black and whites, the contrast so palpable that it could blind were one to stare at it for too long. It is an epic that will take up 140 minutes of a viewer’s time, but it is also a flat desert plain stretching to the horizon, the only hint of depth merely a mirage.

War for the Planet of the Apes, the 2017 film from Matt Reeves, is the second Reeves entry in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy, and the sequel to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It is fifteen years since the events in that film, and humanity is on the brink. Simian flu, a virus that has made apes sapient, intelligent species, has wreaked havoc on humankind. It has killed 99.998% of the human population, and the survivors now find themselves in a world that is soon the be inherited by the apes.

The ape leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis and a whole lot of CGI), wants peace. He has a point. The planet is a big place, and with only a handful of humans left, there’s no reason it can’t be shared, right? That could work, were it not for the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), the leader of a paramilitary group called Alpha-Omega. The Colonel isn’t interested in peace. He considers his group to be the last gasp of a dying civilization, and he is not interested in humanity becoming history without a fight. It is a hopeless effort, but that doesn’t matter. As long as the Colonel lives, humankind shall not march meekly to its end. To make sure of that, the Colonel kills Caesar’s wife and son, turning the film into a clichéd blood feud.

It now being personal, Caesar heads off for a little bit of revenge against the Colonel, leaving his apes behind and taking three of his most trusted ape advisers along. Caesar does a lot of hand-wringing and deep thinking about the fate of his apes. He wants a future for them, but for some reason feels that the best way to do this is by leaving them to fend for themselves while he hunts down the Colonel. This ends up being a bad idea, as events in the film play out. But by this time, I was glad that Caesar’s plan was blowing up in his face. After sitting through an endless train of simplistic emotional reactions and moral choices, I was ready for a little reckoning.

The apes are the good guys in this flick. That’s fine. But since humans are the bad guys, Reeves had an uphill battle when it came to getting his audience to identify with the apes. The film requires a viewer feel empathy, but in order to convince them, Reeves and company use the most ham-handed, worn-out tropes from the slop bucket of clichés. And that’s why the whole thing doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter how complex are the CGI models of the apes. It doesn’t matter that their super-rendered faces can convey the whole range of human emotions to the viewer. All that technological prowess was wasted by a story that did nothing to challenge the viewer.

Reeves backed up this story by ripping off much better films. A viewer with a lot of movie watching behind them will see scenes and sequences that are practically lifted from other movies. There are elements taken from Apocalypse Now, about fifty different John Ford westerns, and every World War II POW flick ever made. The only original contribution made to the art of film was giving a CGI company the opportunity to further hone their craft.

This film might not have a single shot in it that doesn’t have at least a little CGI. The technique isn’t quite there yet. The apes’ movement and textures are still a touch in the uncanny valley, and the sweeping landscape shots are a little too unreal, but overall it looks great, especially during closeups. The leaps and bounds that CGI has been making in the 21st century are bringing true fantasies to life in a way that filmmakers of the past could only dream of. In that, War of the Planet of the Apes is an achievement, and deserves praise. But I think a lot of critics saw the excellence of the effects, and either missed or ignored the failings of the rest of the film.

Much praise has been given to Serkis for his performance as Caesar, and he had been on many shortlists for an Oscar nod, which he didn’t get. All the praise for his performance is somewhat mystifying. Caesar is not a complex character. He’s the most one-dimensional character in a film full of them, in fact. He never has to make tough choices. The film wants a viewer to believe they are tough choices, but they’re not. Just because Caesar frowns throughout the entire film doesn’t mean that he’s making a hard choice. Any decent actor could have been put in his place and delivered a similar performance, especially with so much of it being the work of the CGI team.

One actor who did well in the film was Steve Zahn as the film’s comic relief, Bad Ape. He was a likable Gollum. His voice and mannerisms conveyed complexity and changing emotions, while Caesar was just one long, hard stare.

I did not have high expectations coming into this film, as there wasn’t a whole lot left for the premise to explore. And I was right about that. This is a paint-by-numbers flick where human protagonists have been replaced by CGI apes. That’s all. There’s nothing made profound about what would be an extraordinary turn of events out here in the real world. This is a movie that tries very hard to wow a viewer, but Reeves never chose to do so with something we haven’t all seen before.

This review is an outlier where otherwise there is consensus. A whole lot of people liked this film, including critics who actually get paid for what they do. I am left baffled by this.