War for the Planet of the Apes is long—at 140 minutes, easily the longest Apes film ever—and meditative, stripping away relatable human characters to focus entirely on the hero Caesar (Andy Serkis, the king of motion-capture performance), the chimpanzee who leads a colony of apes in California’s redwood forests. That Reeves is presenting a big-budget summer blockbuster centered on CGI simians who largely communicate in sign language is still one of the most flabbergasting triumphs of the current blockbuster age; even more impressive is how naturally Caesar and his compatriots come across. As with Dawn, I never found myself yearning for the story to cut to flesh-and-blood actors. In fact, anytime it did, I found my mind wandering.
In War, though, Reeves doesn’t do enough to build on the major achievements of Dawn. That film was a parable of the toxicity of humanity and the corrupting power of guns—its main conflict broke out when the villainous, vengeful ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) found a cache of weapons. In War, the carnage is taken for granted and Caesar’s conflict is internal, as he wrestles with his own desire for payback (represented by taunting nightmares he has of Koba) versus the necessity of leading his colony to a newer, safer place far away from human threats.
Much of the action in War is framed around that personal struggle, charting Caesar’s mission to attack a particular colony of militant humans led by the unnamed Colonel (Woody Harrelson). It’s here that I began to lose the thread of whatever allegory Reeves is working with. The Colonel, surely named for Kurtz of Apocalypse Now (Harrelson is similarly bald and insane), is an uninteresting tyrant who has enslaved groups of apes to fortify his base in preparation for some final, mysterious conflict. Caesar’s need to destroy the Colonel feels reasonable, rather than like a reflection of his darkest demons.
Dawn gave more of an emotional grounding to the rift between Caesar (who had largely been treated kindly by human scientists in Rise) and Koba (who was essentially tortured into existence). In War, what remains of humanity is basically a plague waiting to be finally scrubbed away—a notion that doesn’t really make for good drama. The most compelling dynamic comes with the evolved apes who work for the Colonel, who are referred to as “donkeys” and exist as second-class citizens within his miserable militia.
Though the sight of these simian sonderkommandos is initially horrifying, Reeves doesn’t do much with them, and that whole sub-plot gets a pat resolution as the Colonel’s last stand draws to a bloody close. The film’s imagery is impressively bleak, but it’s in service of a disappointing retread of Dawn’s story. Caesar’s instincts as a leader remain more moral and humane than the species that created him, and the earth continues to thrive largely without the people who were previously helping to destroy it.