Too Much MONKEY Business

There’s not much war in War for the Planet of the Apes, which is a problem, since it’s called War for the Planet of the Apes. A better, more accurate title would’ve been Failed Diplomacy on the Planet of the Apes, though of course that wouldn’t get anyone excited. “War,” though, YEAH! An apes-fighting-humans summer blockbuster—gimme some of that!

It opens well: An army battalion closes in on an ape stronghold. The humans think they’re at war, the apes just want to be left alone. Humans attack. Apes defend. It’s a nicely staged, edited and performed sequence, and gives us hope for positive things to come.

And then … nothing.

The apes talk about their feelings, and soon we’re about to doze off. The dialog isn’t well-written. In fact, this one may set the record for most subtitles in a big budget blockbuster. It’s a given that people spending money to see a movie with this title don’t want to read from the screen. This isn’t a foreign film, after all.

We do need to know what the apes are communicating to each other, so why not let them all speak? Not just the leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis), all of them. Because here’s the logical, obvious flaw in having only Caesar speak: How do the other apes understand English? Furthermore, when he’s not facing other apes and they sign (language) something to him, he shouldn’t be responding as if they’re in conversation when he can’t see them. Apparently the other apes understand English perfectly, they just can’t speak it. The few who try a word here and there, though, do just fine.

I know, I know. I’m writing about logic in a movie about a talking ape and the humans trying to kill him. Perhaps my frustration is misguided. Let’s instead put all the blame for the film’s failings on the misshapen story. After big bad Colonel McCullogh (Woody Harrelson) kills Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and son Blue Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones), Caesar vows to kill him. Important: Caesar vows to kill McCullogh—no one else. It’s not much of a war when the protagonist is after one person.

On Caesar goes, picking up help in the form of fellow apes Maurice (Karin Konoval), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and Rocket (Terry Notary). They also take pity on a human girl, Nova (Amiah Miller), and the kooky “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), so named because he used to be in a zoo and (presumably) that’s what humans always said to him. We’re supposed to feel bad for him. I didn’t.

As the chase evolves (at least four now against one), nonsensical plot conveniences emerge. The apes find the perfect people to join them on their journey, even in the most remote places. Later, Nova walks straight into a restricted area completely undetected and assists incarcerated apes, apparently because the guards had gone to bed for the night.

All that implausibility aside, my goodness, does director Matt Reeves’ film feature tremendous visual effects! Because they seem so real, it’s easy to forget the apes are created using performance capture animation, in which the actors’ movements are placed into a computer that subsequently renders them as apes. Everything about the apes is created in a computer: the details of the hair, facial expressions, light reflecting in the eyes and even tears. Absolutely stunning. If you do see this, be sure to make an effort to marvel at the technology on display.

In the opening credits, War for the Planet of the Apes gives a quick summary of predecessors Rise (’11) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (’14), which is good, because the only thing I remembered about those two was how forgettable they were. Now having seen the third, I hope the fourth will extend the same courtesy.