Comparing the current, mostly enthralling series of Planet of the Apes movies with their Sixties and Seventies counterparts is like comparing an iPhone with a rotary-dial Bakelite monstrosity. Yet War for the Planet of the Apes, the third in the current run of films, has such a stately respect for allowing the story to unfold gradually through images that it’s also a throwback to the mid century style of, say, John Ford. It’s fitting that a movie that features both crossbows and laser-guided rifles, tanks as well as horseback riding feels classic and contemporary at the same time.
The title is a bit misleading: the promised all-out war between ape and man still hasn’t taken place by the film’s end. If anything, there was more fighting in the previous entry, 2014’s superb Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The new film, directed (as was Dawn) by Matt Reeves, strikes a more elegiac and soul-searching tone. Even before the start of the picture, the famous 20th Century Fox drumroll-led fanfare is replaced by a subtler and more foreboding jungle-style drumming.
We’re still a generation before the events depicted in the original, 1968 film Planet of the Apes. After a virus has wiped out most of mankind but also created a race of hyper-intelligent monkeys, the wise, peace-seeking ape leader Caesar (created by a combination of digital effects and the intensely focused acting of Andy Serkis) has killed his murderous, Stalinesque rival Koba and seeks only for his kind to be left alone in the forest by the humans. Yet bands of human infantry are roaming those woods on search-and-destroy missions, even wearing slogans on their helmets (“Monkey Killer,” “Bedtime for Bonzo”) suggesting a Vietnam allegory that doesn’t develop the way you expect. (Later in the film, an authoritarian will command his legions to build a wall, yet even that doesn’t equate to a facile parallel with Trumpism.) The humans are led by a fierce colonel, McCullough (Woody Harrelson) — yes, the rank is relevant. Among his legions are turncoat apes known derisively as “donkeys” and treated like slaves. The scenario is strange and shivery, much more eerie and compelling than in most post-apocalyptic movies.
Shattered by the colonel’s attacks, Caesar tries both to lead his apes out of the Northern California forests toward Monument Valley (suggesting the next film in the series will be a neo-Western) and to draw fire away from the mass of the ape population by striking out on his own, except for a small band of lieutenants. Along the way, Caesar rescues a strange human girl who doesn’t speak. (Yes, this is also what happened in Logan, 20th Century Fox’s other blockbuster this year. Hollywood screenwriters all seem to drink from the same fountain of ideas.) There is also a wizened comic-relief ape who provides some helpful exposition and is responsible for a few welcome moments of levity in an otherwise quiet and somber picture.
Deliberately working toward a big payoff, Reeves keeps the shaven-headed, obsessive colonel figure cloaked in mystery for most of the film, so even describing who he is and what he’s about may be a bit of a spoiler, but the parallels with Apocalypse Now are unmistakable even before we see an “Ape-ocalypse Now!” graffito scrawled on a cave. What’s interesting about this tyrannical, cultish colonel, though, is that despite the rabid followers who treat him like a god, he isn’t quite insane. From his point of view, what he’s doing makes perfect sense: The only way to save the human race is to kill those who give indications of being infected with a mutated version of the virus — without his desperate fast-forward eugenics program, the apes will take over Earth. (We know how that turns out: We’re even introduced in this film to the baby Cornelius, the chimp who befriended Charlton Heston’s character Taylor in the original film.)
I probably will never tire of Apocalypse Now, so that parallel is fine with me, and Reeves’s commentary on Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece is elegantly interspersed with traditional elements of the Apes franchise. Elements of Spartacus are skillfully added as well, as when the captured apes carry out an uprising against the threat of crucifixion. I often complain that 21st-century moviemakers don’t seem to have any frame of reference except earlier movies — most seem to grow up in a kind of multiplex version of Plato’s Cave, blissfully unsullied by reality — but if you must raid film history for character inspiration, Spartacus and Col. Kurtz are two pretty solid choices. And when a film is as gorgeously shot and smartly executed as War for the Planet of the Apes, I can’t help but revel in its cinematic self-awareness. Upon the strength of the vampire film Let Me In, Dawn, and this entry, Reeves has earned himself the right to be considered one of the top blockbuster directors of his generation, and I hungrily await his next opus, in which Ben Affleck reprises his role as The Batman.