Ape-ocalypse Now!: War For The Planet Of The Apes goes full Kurtz

By Jim Slotek

Yes, I enjoyed War For The Planet Of The Apes, more and more as its parts sunk in. But I will also say, for all the smarts, motion-capture magic and action of this 21st Century trilogy, I kind of miss the cheek of the campy ape films I grew up on.

More Moses than Caesar

More Moses than Caesar

Maybe the makers of the series – who seem to have thought of everything – thought of that too, because they injected a broken-English-speaking comic-relief character in War For The Planet Of The Apes that could be the love child of Jar Jar Binks and Gollum. That would be “Bad Ape,” a needing-to-please, virtually hairless circus ape, voiced and mo-capped by Steve Zahn.

A ploy that like that in a series this grim (and this is the grimmest instalment) tends to stand out in the wrong way.

So there, I led with what bugged me. You may find Bad Ape adorable.

That said, what has impressed me the most about this series – which started with Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continued with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – has been its commitment to its internal logic. It is a much more plausible post-apocalyptic story than what came before.

At the same time, it connects the dots to many aspects of the previous Apes series (there are characters named Cornelius and Nova, and a tentative explanation for how humans would become brutish and mute).

But I kind of miss these two

But I kind of miss these two

The McGuffin of the series is the Simian Virus, an RNA genome that is simultaneously responsible for the explosion of ape intelligence and the decimation of humans (and possibly worse). As War For The Planet Of The Apes begins, Caesar (Andy Serkis, the Olivier of mo-cap) is older and greyer, the commander of an ape cavalry and community that’s still hiding out in the forest of Northern California seeking the promised land. What’s left of the human race has been split into factions – one of which is bent on annihilating the apes through superior weaponry.

The latter is led, naturally, by an insane, rogue military man. Woody Harrelson plays The Colonel with Marlon Brando’s look and demeanor from Apocalypse Now (and even occasionally lapses into a Col. Kurtz impression). And just in case you failed to catch their drift, director Matt Reeves’ camera focuses occasionally on subterranean graffiti that reads, “Ape-ocalypse Now.”

By turns, War For The Planet Of The Apes is a war movie (with our simian friends taking casualties by the score and losing loved ones with every skirmish), a “fellowship” movie reminiscent of Lord Of The Rings (four apes and a human child on a quest to solve their problem directly) and a harrowing concentration camp film. That’s some serious narrative turns, and is the main reason for the film’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour length.

Our hero turns out to be more Moses than Caesar, with a last-act deus ex machina event figuring in the fate of the simian slaves and their leader. (And in a nod to baser human behavior, some of the apes are turncoats based on their belief that humans will ultimately win, willingly becoming “donkeys” to their human masters).

At this point, the motion-capture is seamless. There is no longer an uncanny-valley in the brain that prevents you from accepting the ape protagonists as real. And there are enough narrative pathways left at the end of the movie for us to doubt that this really is the end of the line for this story.

War For The Planet Of The Apes. Directed by Matt Reeves. Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn. Opens wide Thursday, July 13.

Jim Slotek

Jim Slotek is a former Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special (the NHL Awards). Prior to the Sun, he worked at the Ottawa Citizen as an entertainment reporter.