Six years on from the reboot, life isn’t getting any easier on the Planet of the Apes. Following Rise of (2011) and Dawn of (2014), the series has now moved directly to War for, which is a galling development for those of us who’d dared to hope for Breakfast at.
This trick is pulled earlier and more effectively than ever in returning director Matt Reeves’ icily engrossing new chapter, which modulates between revenge western and historical epic via Vietnam meltdown movie. In one scene, the words ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’ are actually scrawled on a tunnel wall, just in case the parallels weren’t already conspicuous enough.
It opens 15 years after the biotechnological events of Rise decimated the human population while setting ape evolution on a fast track – and with the accords of Dawn having broken down without hope of reconciliation. In an whispery no-man’s forest, a battalion of humans stalks towards an ape-built stockade, and the slogans chalked on their helmets – ‘Monkey Killer’, ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’ and so on – suggest the inter-species enmity is now firmly entrenched.
Yet these soldiers have apes on their side – either willing collaborators or forcibly conscripted captives, with ‘Donkey’ (as in Kong) belittlingly daubed on their backs in white paint. The lines of loyalty are muddier than ever – and when the fighting starts, it’s bitter and intense. Insofar as there are still official human armed forces out there, this group definitely doesn’t qualify.
They’re the rogue Alpha-Omega platoon, commanded by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), whose bullet-like bald head and fluting, Brando-esque tenor flag up just how close to the Heart of Darkness this science-fictional future has strayed. As before, the apes’ leader is the chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) – and an early confrontation with McCullough at the animals’ waterfall hideaway sets up a blood debt that must be ferociously repaid. Along with a small team of trusted allies, including his orangutan advisor Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar abandons his tribe and makes for McCullough’s base somewhere in the frozen wilderness, where countless primate prisoners of war are waiting for their Moses.
The horizon-stretching wide shots of Caesar and his comrades traversing openly evoke David Lean – one of the few directors who could make the screen feel big enough to do history justice. Reeves marshals more than his fair share of battle scenes and sweeping set-pieces, but never forgets the flicker of a face can provide all the spectacle that cinema requires.