Director: Matt Reeves; Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Karin Konoval, Steve Zahn, Terry Notary, Amiah Miller. Cert tbc, 142 mins
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.
Nevertheless, the smartest decision this unflaggingly smart summer franchise ever made was keeping each of its increasingly sober instalments ape-centric. Whenever crunch time arrives, the films throw in their lot with the simians, which casts humankind as the enemy and gives these classic frontier stories a thrillingly disarming and destabilising edge.
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.
War for the Planet of the Apes – official trailer
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. (With both this film and Kong: Skull Island arriving within four months of each other, it’s clearly the time for ape-centric Apocalypse Now tributes.)