“War for the Planet of the Apes” gives audiences both illusion and allusion. As for the illusion, the primates in the rebooted series’ third film have finally escaped the uncanny valley — the CGI-enhanced primate performances (led once again by Andy Serkis as Caesar) are believable and nuanced. And the allusion part? Scriptwriters Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves (who also directs) apparently looked at Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece “Apocalypse Now” and said, “Yeah, that was pretty good. But what if we added monkeys?”
The film finds Caesar and his simian group living fairly remotely from the humans who survived the “simian flu” that has left many people very dead. Still, conflicts with humans erupt, particularly with a group led by Colonel His-Last-Name-Is-Definitely-Not-Kurtz (Woody Harrelson, channeling Brando). While Caesar wants to find a place where apes can live in peace and leave humans behind, Colonel, to paraphrase the immortal words of Troy McClure, hates every ape he sees, from chimpan-A to chimpanzee. He’s preparing for all-out war — and, in a master stroke of cruelty — enslaves captured apes to build a giant wall around his remote, slightly cultish camp, assisted by kapo-like “donkeys,” the name given to apes that have acquiesced to working with the enemy.
“War” is very aware it’s not only the successor to the last two movies, but also a predecessor of sorts to 1968’s original “Planet of the Apes.” There’s a sense of ending running throughout: Is Caesar’s brutal rage a result of nature or nurture? Can he overcome it? Will he and his people reach their promised land, presumably flowing with lettuce and bananas? More interesting, though, is seeing how the film slowly but surely begins pointing to Charlton Heston’s arrival.
Interweaving elements of Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” brings a veneer of intelligence to what could have been just a dumb monkey movie. There are still elements of a dumb monkey movie, to be sure, but there’s also consideration of how animals can have humanity and how humans can be absolute beasts.
In the end, “War” is solid summer fun. And while it ably speaks its own entertaining language, if you want something deeper, best to seek it out in the original Coppola.