If we’re being honest, once you strip away the technical wizardry (and it really is), War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) is all rather too familiar. It feels like a film cobbled together from parts of more energetic and original genre movies. Its being spoken of as the antidote to the rest of Summer’s ‘event movies’ but, like all of them, it falls apart brilliantly in a final third that sees the film stretched well beyond its logical runtime.
Imagine if this actually had the stones to be a small revenge movie? Or a large war movie? (Why are none of these films named correctly?) Or a retelling of Exodus? Or if they had even just shown Woody Harrelson’s ‘Colonel’ actually being the antagonist that he spends so much time telling us about..? It would be spectacular, and in ten years’ time we might have had a movie that was remembered as more than a technological milestone.
What none of these films do that the original series did (even in the much weaker entries), is anything remotely startling. Obviously it’s hard to compete with a series kicked off by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling but I think there are a couple of other reasons. The first is Charlton Heston. His performance in the first film turns a few throwaway character lines into a deep vein of cynicism that makes the ending feel tragically inevitable rather than melodramatic. It seems to infect the whole series and can be heard long after Heston’s departure.
The second is the apes themselves. The modern films are technical marvels, stunning even, but the old ape makeup was abstracting and allowed room for symbolism. Like the most recent Jungle Book movie it’s all too literal and surface level. Sure the films have meaning but there’s no iconography, there’s no moment of shock or mirrors being held up. There’s nothing as chilling or interesting as Heston’s laugh.