Starring Andy Serkis. Rated PG
I’ve harboured a peculiar fondness for the Planet of the Apes movies ever since I saw the 1968 original at Chilliwack’s historic—and since demolished—Paramount Theatre at age 11. Even then I could tell that it was pretty dumb, but I had a thing about “gorillas”—even if they were mostly chimpanzees, like Roddy McDowall’s kind-hearted Cornelius.
The franchise has been pretty hit-and-miss so far, though. Tim Burton’s 2001 remake with Mark Wahlberg was freakin’ awful—except for the part about Estella Warren—whereas the 2011 reboot with James Franco wasn’t too bad. And the latest entry, War for the Planet of the Apes, continues that not-too-bad tradition, mainly because of the action scenes and visual effects.
As the film opens, we see American soldiers stealthily creeping up a forest hill that looks a lot like B.C. because it is. They have threatening phrases like “Monkey Killer” and “Bedtime for Bonzo” scrawled on their helmets, so you know these macho men are in line for an ass-whuppin’.
After the expected pounding by an army of apes on horseback, lead simian Caesar (motion-capture superstar Andy Serkis, of Gollum fame) solemnly tells the few surviving grunts: “I did not start this war.” He sends them back alive to prove that his kind aren’t “savages” and just asks to be left alone in the woods. But if you believe that happens, I’ve got a forest full of anthropoids to sell you.
After some sumptuously shot scenes in which the gentle apes frolic happily near a waterfall to a sweeping orchestral score—the poop-chucking is kept to a minimum, at least for now—the pesky humans return with machine guns sporting cool green-laser scopes and Woody Harrelson as the swaggering, ape-hating Colonel. After he wastes most of Caesar’s family, the plot line gets locked on revenge as the grieving chimp sets off on horseback with his three most trusted disciples for a little payback.
As if it weren’t already clear that humans are the real animals and apes essentially good, the foursome rescue a mute young girl (Amiah Miller) and take her with them. Along the way, they also encounter a goofy little chimp (Steve Zahn), and bring him along for comic relief and cuteness and to make sure that that sweeping orchestral score never wavers.
The sentimentality on display verges on saccharine, but the wild action sequences, lush photography, and first-rate production design make up for it. Harrelson shaves his skull with a straight razor and impressively flexes his head muscles, but those special effects are nothing compared with the mind-blowing visuals that make the film’s last half-hour a sterling example of what Hollywood producers like to call “movie magic”.