War for the Planet of the Apes’ biggest conflict isn’t the one you expect from the title. Sure, it’s full of large-scale battles between human armies and apes, and there’s plenty of action and intense gunfights. But the real war in the latest Planet of the Apes film is over what kind of movie it wants to be.
Despite starting and ending as a standard “war” film, complete with slow-motion explosion montages, characters scrambling to safety through dirt trenches, and people hunkering behind cover as bullets fly around them, War for the Planet of the Apes spends most of its runtime as an old-fashioned Western. And despite the surprising shift in tone when Caesar (played by Andy Serkis and an army of CGI engineers) mounts up on horseback away from the large-scale combat and into a completely different genre, it actually works.
Unlike the previous Apes films where humans and apes alternated in the spotlight, Caesar drives the entire narrative this time around. His brooding, Clint Eastwood demeanor and the film’s purposeful pacing generate a slow and steady burn that’s only broken by scattered gunfire and breakneck horse chases. And even with a preponderance of ape-focused exposition, it’s still effective because the movie makes you believe that the talking and acting apes you see on screen are real-life creatures. Whether they’re conversing in sign language or Caesar’s rough speech, War for the Planet of the Apes quickly erases the ineffective opening war and draws you into a world of convincing, empathetic characters on a cowboy-like tale of bloody vengeance.
But War of the Planet of the Apes also does this so well because it is, once again, a technical masterpiece; the line between practical effects and CGI isn’t just blurred, it’s erased. When the camera focuses on Caesar’s eyes as he talks about his loss or tries to understand his world, you stop looking for the little tells, the surefire giveaways that these are just special effects. Instead, you feel like you’re looking directly into the eyes of a highly intelligent, talking chimpanzee.
The deliberate pace and careful focus on individual apes as characters works to spectacular effect as a Western, but the magic is lost somewhat when the film shifts once again about halfway in, this time becoming a heist/breakout film and paying homage to The Great Escape. The focus shifts more to the escapades of the apes, the soundtrack changes, and it creates a jarring change just as the film seems to be settling into its prairie-bound groove.
But while the heist section of the film is a distracting-but-not-terrible aside, the inevitable “war movie” also makes its return near the end. In this final shift, War for the Planet for the Apes tries to create parallels to Apocalypse Now–with its sweeping camera work, its antagonist derided as a crazy military leader, and even the too-on-the-nose “Ape Apocalypse Now!” message scrawled in graffiti on a wall–but those comparisons to a classic like Apocalypse just highlight War for the Planet of the Ape’s relative inability to maintain its comparable momentum and focus.
In every way that War for the Planet of the Apes is successful as a Western, it fails to convey the scope of its war and the toll it takes on its characters. The stakes are so subdued that they never feel any greater than the climatic battle that closed the previous film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and the entire war feels less immediate and important than Caesar’s own personal battle. Despite the title, the fighting ends up feeling more like a single battle, and the final conflict is resolved in an ridiculous deus ex machina moment. Taken altogether, it makes the “war” aspects feel tacked on to a completely different–and superior–movie.
So the real conflict is between what type of film War for the Planet of the Apes wants to be and what it is. Although it lacks any reason to call the movie’s fight a war at all, it’s still an interesting continuation of the Planet of the Apes saga. The subtle and overt allusions to the original films, both in characters and setting, create a palpable sense of dread and expectation for anyone familiar with Charlton Heston’s turn in the first Planet of the Apes. And in both the original franchise and this reboot, the human characters continue to fade into the background, both literally and figuratively. But War for the Planet Apes’ CGI cast is so good, that real-life humans might not be necessary for the next movie.