The new trilogy of Planet of the Apes movies began in 2011 and has grown darker with the times. The first installment, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, knew how to have some fun, even though it was a movie about how mankind engineers its own successors and its own destruction. Rise had James Franco’s scientist raising a super-intelligent ape in a San Francisco Victorian, apes shinnying up redwood trees and fighting wicked zookeepers and wreaking havoc in the streets of San Francisco, apes going up against helicopters on the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog . . . all of it played straight but also with just the right small dose of silly, befitting a franchise that began with Ben-Hur getting manhandled by all those damn, dirty monkeys.
Silliness has been in shorter supply in the sequels. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) was set in the aftermath of the civilization-destroying catastrophe that was just beginning as the first movie wrapped up — a worldwide wipeout delivered by the “simian flu,” a fatal-to-humans illness caused by the same drugs that supercharged simian brainpower. Its story pitted an ape colony in the northern-California forests against human flu survivors in San Francisco, offering a harsh parable about race relations or immigration or the clash of civilizations (depending on your political tastes) as the two communities aimed at cooperation and ended in destructive war.
Dawn was dark, but there were still admirable humans and human–ape friendships, and the inter-species war was caused by the malice of a few and misunderstanding by the many. In this summer’s War for the Planet of the Apes, all that belongs to the past: Now it’s species against species, sapiens against simians, and in the battle for the future, the only good human is a dead one.
Well, dead or mute. In one of the clever twists tying these movies to the Hestonian original, it seems that the simian flu has mutated, and the human survivors immune to its lethal version can still fall prey to version 2.0, which doesn’t kill you but robs you of certain higher functions, including the ability to speak.
These regressing humans, along with the increasingly verbal apes, are the targets of a nameless human colonel, played by a bald and muscled Woody Harrelson in a relatively dialed-back performance given how much scenery the script offers him to chomp. His soldiers call the apes “the Kong” — get it, get it? — and use turncoat simians as their scouts as they patrol the northern-California jungle. The apes, meanwhile, are still led by the hero of movies one and two, Caesar (Andy Serkis), who harbors some hope for peace with human beings despite having clearly been chosen by Providence to supplant us.
In the movie’s opening act, that hope is shattered when the colonel leads a daring nighttime raid on the hidden ape community and succeeds in killing part of Caesar’s family. This sets our hero on a revenger’s course, as the rest of his chosen people head off on a Hebrews-in-the-desert or Mormons-in-the-Rockies sort of quest, seeking a promised land where what’s left of the human race cannot molest them.
Along the way to his confrontation with the colonel, Caesar and his intimates (including the soulful orangutan Maurice, a personal favorite) pick up two allies. One is a chattering chimpanzee (a motion-captured Steve Zahn) who goes by the name “Bad Ape,” because that’s what his human keepers called him. The other is a blonde human child (Amiah Miller) who has joined the ranks of the mute and is therefore a fit companion and ally (I won’t say pet, but you might think it) for the apes.
Together they end up pitted against Harrelson’s mad warrior in his snowbound mountain stronghold, where apes are put to work building a wall (nudge, nudge) and tied up crucifixion-style under a tattered American flag scrawled with an alpha and omega while the colonel struts around wearing a crucifix and in the tunnels underneath someone has scrawled “Ape-pocalypse Now.” And yes, unfortunately, it’s all a little much.
Not too much to wreck the movie, which is vivid and well executed and never dull, with Serkis’s motion-capture performance as Caesar still a true marvel of technology-abetted acting. But enough to weigh it down with too much allegorical baggage, too many portentous allusions: Caesar as Moses and Jesus as well as his namesake, the ape–human war as Nam and Harrelson as Kurtz, Trumpian allegories and Biblical allegories and racial allegories and Indian War allegories and more, until War feels a self-important pudding with way too many eggs.
Still, there is a real power — and a real horror — to the going-mute device, enough even to generate some sympathy for Harrelson’s Kurtzian caricature and some real pathos around our species’ looming fate. It reminds me of the punishment visited on certain wicked talking beasts in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. The divine spark that they were given is blown out, and suddenly, horribly, they pass from being talking animals to being dumb beasts once again.
For us humans, likewise raised up to consciousness from beastly ancestors, it’s a striking way to imagine our own rule ending: not with a bang but with an unintelligible whimper.