The Ape Hunter
by ALEX CARNEVALE
War for the Planet of the Apes
dir. Matt Reeves
Bad things keep happening to apes. Even though only two living apes in War for the Planet of the Apes are actually able to speak English, and the species still lives in deep nature, their lifestyle is not in any way altered from when they were beasts, we are supposed to believe that these creatures have transcended some invisible line of sentience. The life of an ape is by far the most important thing in War for the Planet of the Apes, even though the apes seem to be killing just as many humans, if not more.
Caesar (Andy Serkis) gets very, very upset when Woody Harrelson assassinates his family, so he decides to strike out with a few of his ape buddies to murder him out of revenge. The circumstances of Woody’s slaughter are kind of unclear: we never actually see him end Caesar’s family and the patriarch is conveniently elsewhere when the violence happens. This is just the first dumb shit thing Caesar does, but it is far from the last.
If Caesar were a human being, he would be an unsympathetic failure. But since world-class CGI gives him the saddest and fiercest looking face, reminding everyone of a puppy, we decide we can forgive him everything. The only thing Caesar eats during War for the Planet of the Apes is a light brown substance that looks like birdseed, since if he bit the head off of a bunny rabbit, we might realize he’s not perfect.
Bothering me even more than Caesar’s diet is his lack of fungible genitalia. None of the apes have penises, despite walking around in the nude presumably among friends. These apes abhor sex, and never show the slightest romantic interest in other apes. There is one woman ape, who is most notable for being the nanny to Caesar’s son. She has no other function or utility. There are a few human women who we see briefly as soldiers later on, but the only other woman in War for the Planet of the Apes is Nova (Amiah Miller), a nine year old who is unable to speak because of a virus that has spread all over North Carolina.
In a weird editing accident, director Matt Reeves did not notice that he placed a scene where a gorilla named Red places a flower in Nova’s hair right next to a scene where she does the same to him. It is actually the only emotional misstep in the entire movie, which does a fantastic job balancing a goofy humor and the unending, merciless onslaught of tragedy. Reeves for the most part goes to great trouble in order to differentiate the apes, and the remarkable special effects at work here by Weta Digital capably transmit a very basic emotional journey between these limited characters.
Undoubtedly the worst part of War for the Planet of the Apes is an interminable sequence where Woody Harrelson completely explains his motivations and history as a person. After many years of watching the man, it might be time to admit that Woody is a variously passable comic actor and an intensely inadequate dramatic actor. He is completely unsuitable to this role as a grim, uncomplicated villain, and he gives us very little insight into how humanity in general is adapting to their new position in the world.
The last half of the film occurs at a single location: a military base and prison camp underneath a small mountain. The battle that ensues there is relatively limited in scope, and it is very hard to account for the $150 million that was spent on this project. There is no actual war between humans and apes in the film, which is something of a disappointing development given all the promotional media and trailers promised actual conflict between the species. Like the historical figure he is meant to represent, Moses, Caesar’s only purpose is to flee conflict and establish a sanctuary for his race. Everyone else in War for the Planet of the Apes waits patiently and silently for this to happen.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.