War for the Planet of the Apes movie review: Amazing, sweeping sci-fi epic is a cut above this year's other summer fare
The fact that so many film critics got excited about Spiderman Homecoming is an indication of just how low our summer blockbuster expectations have sunk. The latest superhero yarn to rumble off the Marvel conveyor belt is competent but unremarkable, yet to listen to some of the glowing reviews you'd think it was Battleship Potemkin. Our standards have been so battered by Zac Snyder films and the Transformers series that we've become grateful for summer movies that aren't actively rubbish.
It doesn't have to be that way, and War for the Planet of the Apes conclusively proves it. I don't think Fox's reboot of their 1960s franchise has got the credit it deserves, and while it's rare for remakes to outclass the original, that's certainly the case here.
The 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes cleverly invented a premise for the coming simian supremacy: James Franco played a scientist whose search for an Alzheimer's cure has an unintended consequence. When one of the chimpanzees he's testing a new drug on has a baby, it matures into a super-intelligent alpha male who will eventually lead an uprising against perfidious humanity.
He is Caesar (a digitally modified Andy Serkis), and in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) he stood strong in the aftermath of a deadly virus that had wiped out most of mankind, and showed Napoleonic resourcefulness in defeating a desperate attack on his tribe's forest lair.
In War for the Planet of the Apes, however, the stakes are far higher, as a bloodthirsty army colonel (Woody Harrelson) has vowed to wipe the entire Californian ape colony out.
Though his first effort fails, the Colonel does manage to assassinate Caesar's wife and son, after which a red mist descends over the eyes of the normally cool-headed chimp. And while wiser councils tell him he should forget about the Colonel and lead his colony to a new safe haven as quickly as possible, Caesar wants revenge.
His search for it will lead him and his kind to hell and back, and meanwhile the Colonel faces a battle on two fronts against human enemies who've decided, not unreasonably, that he's an unhinged despot.
That plot's a simple one, recycled by many a B-western. The trick, of course, is in the telling, and director Matt Reeves and his writers have enriched their story with all sorts of references. The apes' search for a promised land makes one think of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, and classic Hollywood epics like The 10 Commandments and Ben-Hur are given affectionate nods.
A climactic sequence inside the Colonel's hellish compound reminded me of Kurosawa's famous battle scenes in Seven Samurai. This level of culture and inventiveness is refreshing in a summer action film, but Reeves' daring goes further than that.
When the Colonel captures most of the apes and puts them to work shifting rocks inside his compound, one's mind is drawn time and again to the Nazi death camps, and the final solution.
The Colonel has just such a solution in mind, but even he is slightly humanised when he discover that his son was afflicted by the strange evolutionary reversal that has seen humans lose the power of speech and thought as the apes gain it.
It's only a stupid summer film you might say, but that doesn't preclude it from being visually challenging, or intelligent. The motion capture and CGI that's used to render the apes is so good you no longer doubt your eyes when one of them starts talking, and Andy Serkis is excellent again as the heroic Caesar.
The film's visuals are splendid, epic, and remind you of a David Lean film. Woody Harrelson's character evokes Colonel Nicholson, the stiff-upper-lipped loon from Lean's Bridge Over the River Kwai. Mostly though, he recalls Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, a once honourable soldier driven mad by the horror of war.
War for the Planet of the Apes (12A, 140mins) ★★★★
Also out this week: Movie reviews: Cars 3, The Beguiled, Pilgrimage