Almost fifty years after the release of the original Planet of the Apes movie, the franchise – rebooted in 2011 – returns with its ninth instalment. Following the events of Rise and Dawn, which saw Caesar the chimp gain intelligence due to a genetically-engineered virus that, in turn, decimated the Earth’s human population, the situation is thus: Caesar and his peace-loving followers want to be left alone. But the humans? They want revenge.
As franchises go, the modern ‘Apes’ incarnation has been slickly executed and surprisingly character-driven. The latest movie takes that ethos to its most extreme level yet. It’s so expensive-looking you can barely tell what’s real and what isn’t, but it eschews any complicated plot in favour of telling story that’s all about Caesar, and his attempt to save his people (well, chimp-people) without stumbling into the psychological abyss that once consumed his rival, Koba.
As an action movie, it’s solid. There are some decent set pieces, well-executed, and which marry character and action satisfyingly. What story they bother with is tight and focused, and there are even some decent laughs along the way. It’s not exactly a light touch when it wants you to feel something, and that makes it predictable at times, but the combination of performance capture and animation is subtle enough that it’s hard not to feel something for these simple, convincingly human-like creatures.
A large part of that is down to the score, which is superbly judged. Earnest and orchestral, evocative of the 60s’ Planet of the Apes score and yet somehow iconic in its own right, it underline’s Michael Giacchino’s ability to make almost anything work. You don’t have to be into film scores to notice quite how good War’s is, nor how much heavy lifting it’s doing in cementing the tone of each scene.
The film is, in short, better than most blockbuster films released in the last few years – particularly if you restrict that to returning franchises, which have had a hard enough time being coherent, never mind good. But it’s a good movie rather than a great one. It’s certainly not a fun movie, for the most part, and it’s lacking any big ideas in favour of being aggressively invested in making its own high concept work.
Which is fine, if you lie awake at night wondering what a monkey uprising might look like in sheer practical terms, but the really interesting question – what it would mean if humanity’s position as the dominant species was genuinely threatened – is overlooked in favour of a character narrative focusing on a CGI chimp. Unlike this year’s Logan – which it shares a surprising amount of its DNA with – War isn’t really about anything other than its main character. If you don’t care about Caesar’s psychological journey – and I didn’t – then there’s nothing to hook you.
That’s a problem, because the ‘Planet of the Apes’ series has always been at its best when allegorical and ideas-led. By focusing on the character of Caesar, War avoids even the simple humanitarian or pacifistic messages of the previous films. We’re left with a movie that highlights humanity’s capacity for a lack of humanity, but doesn’t seem interested in exploring anything other than its lead character’s attempt to hold onto his own chimp-humanity in the face of atrocity on atrocity.
The closest we get to exploring the effect of survival on the soul of our species is Caesar’s opponent, the Colonel, played by Woody Harrelson as a cold-hearted psychopath who hams it up like he’s in an Apocalypse Now sequel. Indeed, one suspects the film includes its own “Ape-pocalypse Now” joke entirely to de-fang it ahead of the reviews. But the Colonel is as sketched-in as his name suggests, and his pseudo-religious military unit is disappointingly undercooked – a poor mirror to the ape tribe they oppress.
So it’s a good movie, well-shot, well-scored and well-written with a well-realised character journey at its heart – but it lacks the extra ingredient that would have made it a truly fantastic action movie. That’s not exactly shameful – most summer blockbusters don’t come anywhere near as close to greatness as this does – but when the credits roll you’ll have nothing to think about. For a film that takes itself this seriously, that’s just enough of a disappointment to keep it from a full five stars.
War for the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas from 13 July 2017.