War for the Planet of the Apes review: "a dark and dreary chapter"
Graphic violence and cartoon villainy sit awkwardly in this weighty trudge of a third film in the rebooted simian series
One of the biggest spoilers in cinema history was perpetrated – and continues to be perpetrated – by the people who own the rights to the film in question.
At the end of the 1968 science-fiction classic Planet of the Apes, we see a broken and angry Charlton Heston pounding the sand of a beach when the realisation dawns where he’s actually been for the preceding couple of hours of screen time.
It’s a powerful and shocking moment, perfectly played, that left cinema-goers speechless. It makes less impact today, however, when every subsequent repackaging of the film for home entertainment features the sand-covered Statue of Liberty on DVD covers and streaming service avatars. To all intents and purposes, it’s akin to a re-release of The Sixth Sense with the poster tagline “Bruce Willis is a ghost!”
All told, adding up the original films, Tim Burton’s 2001 stab at the story, and the current ongoing reboot, this is the ninth big-screen outing for the speaking simians, so the likelihood of spoilers or surprises is reduced to nigh on nought. The main challenge film-makers face, a year shy of the original’s 50th anniversary, is how to maintain audience interest in a premise that, feasibly, was all played out long ago.
This is not the film to breathe fresh life into the franchise; it’s a dark and dreary chapter with far too many eggs in its pudding. The 1968 original, and the book upon which it was based, was a smart allegory for racial division, and while it’s a theme director Matt Reeves also addresses, his story groans under the added weight of flirtations with fascism, slavery, familial separation, not to mention a bizarre aside about building a wall that feels belatedly shoehorned into proceedings as a commentary on Donald Trump’s xenophobic campaign promise.
What’s that you say? We’ve got two hours and 20 minutes to fill? OK, let’s chuck in a shaven-headed megalomaniacal colonel, and a succession of painfully unsubtle visual nods to Apocalypse Now, like ill-fitting pieces borrowed from another jigsaw.
And then there are the obligatory references to previous Apes movies. Naming the lead orang-utan in the last three films after Maurice Evans, who played Dr Zaius way back when, was a respectful touch, but Reeves can’t seem to stop himself. Hence, there are moody images of characters on horseback along an empty beach, a few shots of a human child’s doll, and a non-speaking human character given the same name as Charlton Heston’s mute love interest.
A motion-captured Andy Serkis returns as Caesar (who, with each passing film is looking increasingly like Sean Bean fronting a glam-rock band), still raging and waging against humankind, two years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. His chief nemesis now is Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), a barbarian hell-bent on “purification” and eradicating the world of simian flu.
That’s yer lot, story-wise, as Reeves sticky-tapes one savage set-piece to the next, occasionally trying to recapture the faux Shakespearian grandeur of the last film by portraying Harrelson’s character as a deep thinker on a determined mission. The colonel paints woolly Robert Louis Stevenson quotes around his compound (“Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others”) and relishes torturing chimps in his makeshift prison, but the crass and graphic violence sits awkwardly with the cheesy cartoon villainy.
The special effects are top-notch, but are undermined by the writers’ ragbag of narrative clichés. At one point an avalanche threatens to engulf the protagonists, its arrival as pointlessly random as the big foot that squishes all-comers in the opening montage of the Monty Python TV series – and yes, that is a swell of harp strings you hear when Caesar is reunited with a loved one.
A major plot development close to the end of film suggests that, should the franchise survive this misstep, future instalments will see the saga explore a new direction. That’s the best thing that could happen, because on the strength of this underwhelming fare the apes have very nearly had their day.
War for the Planet of the Apes is released in cinemas on Tuesday 11 July