War For the Planet of the Apes (2017)

A- SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

How? How did this happen? How has 20th Century Fox’s rebooted Planet of the Apes series emerged, against all odds, as the most compelling, most morally resonant franchise of our times?

That’s not a merely rhetorical question. Too often I find myself in the melancholy position of trying to articulate why a movie I ought to like doesn’t work for me. War for the Planet of the Apes poses the opposite challenge: This is a film that, on paper, ought to leave me cold, but instead seared into my mind like a house on fire.

Directed by Matt Reeves. Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Karin Konoval, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson. 20th Century Fox.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value

+2 / -1

Age Appropriateness

Teens & Up

MPAA Rating

PG-13

Caveat Spectator

Some intense battlefield violence; moderate depictions of torture, imprisonment and forced labor; a mercy killing and a suicide (both off-screen); limited profanity.

When Rise of the Planet of the Apes opened six years ago, I found it smartly made but lacking subtext or allegory: a nightmare fantasy verging toward misanthropy, if not nihilism.

War for the Planet of the Apes seems superficially like an extension of that vision: Humans are now effectively the antagonists, even the villains, and the series arc dictates that they’re on the way out. It seems the epitome of the sort of bleak, post-human blockbuster I might be expected to hate.

The first act recaps the series’ point-of-view reversal. The film opens with human soldiers in the foreground and apes appearing as shadowy, intimidating figures on the horizon. After the opening sequence, though, the humans recede and are thereafter seen from the apes’ perspective, as menacing figures preferably seen from a safe distance.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse. Between the inaugural Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the current threequel War for the Planet of the Apes came the middle movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (one of my top 10 films for that year).

With a new director, Matt Reeves, and a screenplay reworked by Mark Bomback, Dawn brought a sense of moral force and deeper meaning lacking in Rise, with impending doom threatening two communities, humans and super-apes, tragically caught between better and worse impulses on both sides.

Reeves and Bomback bring the same humanistic spirit to War for the Planet of the Apes, though the tide has now turned to the point where War is no longer a drama of two communities, but a chronicle of evolved apes enduring the worst that tribal humanity in extremis has to offer.

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