War for the Planet of the Apes film review: A surprisingly political blockbuster that rounds off a surprisingly adept reboot

Dougie Gerrard
The War for the Planet of the Apes

There’s an instructive scene midway through this third instalment of the rebooted Apes franchise, in which Caesar, the leader of the apes (now greying magnificently and played beautifully by mo-cap king Andy Serkis), comes across a prison-camp full of his fellow primates.

He drops to his knees, and the shot composition makes it an unmistakable nod to the original’s famous final scene, with a crucified ape standing in for the Statue of Liberty.

It is instructive because, forty years on from ‘you damn dirty Apes!’, our allegiances are now firmly simian. Whereas the previous two films sought to establish that the ape-world discovered by Heston in 1968 was a tragic mistake borne of human folly and overreach, here the line between good and evil is drawn (save one little girl) according to species.

The apes are afraid and yearn for peace, while humanity, led by a sadistic Colonel (Woody Harrelson, who shows how evil he is by dramatically removing his sunglasses in every scene), wants to drive them from their homes and exterminate them. Caesar, out for bloody revenge after his wife and son are murdered by the Colonel during a raid, embarks on a self-destructive journey to find his adversary.

The funny thing about War is that war hardly features. There are skirmishes and raiding parties, a prison break and a lot of soul searching, but nothing approaching a War for the Planet of the Apes. This sounds like a criticism, but what could have been two hours of weaponised boredom in the Michael Bay mould ends up being something altogether more impressive.

Director Matt Reeves establishes himself here as an able and imaginative handler of studio mega-bucks, capable of nuance and emotional complexity. He also shows that he has a shrewd eye for visual metaphor. Putting an American face on a fictional fascism has been, in light of the year’s events, a popular theme of recent TV and cinema, but triumphantly blasting the Star-Spangled Banner as an SS-esque militia marches into a concentration camp, indiscriminately whipping a group of emaciated apes, is something else.

It is heartening to see such striking political imagery in a film that will gross in the hundreds of millions. It’s also heartening, with Hollywood currently undergoing a period of extended cultural exhaustion, to see the third film in a franchise boldly undercutting its genre’s apparent limitations.

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