The Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy is a bit of an enigma.
The Planet of the Apes franchise got rebooted for a second time in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Rather than going down the remake route which had failed back in 2001, a prequel was made that would tell the story of how the heck Earth would come to be dominated by apes instead of humans. It was a quality film, with an 81% on Rotten Tomatoes and a modest box office showing of $176 million domestic with a $54 million opening weekend.
Fast forward six years to the release of War for the Planet of the Apes, and it has a nearly identical opening weekend of $56 million despite being the highest rated film in the entire franchise with a whopping 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. In fact, not only is it the highest rated film of the franchise, but it is the highest rated of all the films to make more than $50 million in their opening weekends in 2017.
Despite the critical acclaim of this film, it made more than $14 million fewer than its predecessor, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Further, while it is the highest rated of the 14 films that have made more than $50 million in their opening weekends this year, it had the 11th highest opening weekend. Despite its apparent quality, it could not top the fifth Pirates film which rocks a particularly poor 29% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The point I am trying to make is this: despite this trilogy routinely being highly rated, they are never able to make the kind of box office splash that lesser films do. Both of the previous Apes films finished as the 11th highest domestic grossing films of their respective year, and this third iteration is on the same track with the 11th highest opening of the year so far. There may be a number of reasons for this with a lack of a noticeable lead actor chief among them- Andy Serkis in a mo-cap suit doesn’t bring in the crowds like Robert Downey Jr.
However, I believe the number one reason that these films don’t live up to their quality is because they simply are not quite as good as the ratings imply.
Right up front, it needs to be said that the film is good. It is well made, well shot, has good choreography, and is technically very solid. It has decent pacing with good action moments whose only letdowns are some odd choices to release the organic tension with a comic relief character and some goofy music a little too often. The best thing that can be said about it is that is never does anything stupid. So many summer films have elements to them that are simply stupid and wear on the film. Unfortunately, not being stupid does not automatically make a film smart.
War for the Planet of the Apes is what happens when a film attempts to handle lofty subjects/messages with clumsy heavy-handedness instead of subtlety.
The film opens by checking in on Caesar, the leader of a group of intelligent apes that are just trying to live their lives in peace in their rad tree-fort. Unfortunately, those dang humans simply won’t let them be, as they keep attacking the apes in attempts to wipe them out. Despite all of the humans advanced tactics, equipment, firearms and ability to communicate audibly, they are unable to beat the ape’s unbeatable combination of raw strength, sticks and a handful of different noises.
But those stubborn humans will not be deterred. They return at night to assassinate Caesar, but mistakenly kill his wife and son instead. From this point on, the film does everything it can to cram the concept that humans = savages as often as it possibly can. Any time an opportunity comes up to show that the humans are evil scumbags, it takes it without any hesitation or hint of subversion. Woody Harrelson’s character is so comically sinister that he is not even believable. He manages to be more fake and cartoonish than a CG chimpanzee he is speaking to.
Woody Harrelson does his best Snidely Whiplash impression for this film.
Meanwhile, Caesar and his three companions are the most pure beings to ever exist. They befriend a poor little girl that cannot speak because, well, humans couldn’t speak in the original film, so that had to be thrown in here somewhere. The gorilla even gently puts a flower in her hair; they’re so sympathetic! There is not a single human character in this film that is compassionate to the apes. There is one human character that looks like he may kind of consider doing something fairly decent. But he doesn’t; instead he shoots Caesar with a crossbow before being blown up by a gorilla wielding a grenade launcher.
This film felt like it was created by an amateur film student. The imagery is so obvious, and so in your face at all times that it begins to get annoying relatively quickly. The imagery of Caesar as Jesus is so transparent and obvious that Zack Snyder is jealous of it. At one point Caesar is strung up on a big wooden X before being untied and whipped in front of his captors by a gorilla who was betraying his kind. All the while, the other apes are forced into what is basically slavery.
That is not the worst moment though. The absolute worst comes a little before that. The apes have been captured and are being held in a makeshift military camp in the mountains. A group of soldiers marches in before stopping to listen to their commander, Harrelson, who is standing in front of a giant American flag. After some rousing words from their tyrannical leader, they proceed to march the apes out of the cages in order to work while the Star Spangled Banner blares in the background. I nearly rolled my eyes out of my skull during that scene.
Jesus- err…I mean Caesar leads his apostles- uhh, I mean fellow apes against the vile humans who were hell-bent on ape genocide with absolutely no compromises.
War for the Planet of the Apes treats its audience like children. It does not think highly enough of the viewer to handle any of this with any sort of subtlety, or cleverness. Absolutely every message that the film has is shoved down our throats with no care and no nuance.
All of this leads to more than simply complaining about conspicuous imagery, for the characters in the film suffer as a result. It was briefly mentioned earlier that there was only one human in the film that even hinted at showing any sort of remorse. Other than the mute little girl, every single other human in the film is a vile monster that only wants to destroy. There is never a moment of clarity, or a change of heart, or any sort of subversion of expectations. They start out as cartoonish villains and all die as cartoonish villains. Woody Harrelson was a mustache twirling villain of the highest order that had almost zero sympathy and comes across as a crazy person. The apes show a little more depth, but even then it is painfully predictable. The bad gorilla that had been abused by the humans would redeem itself at the end, as was its destiny from the first second it appeared on the screen.
In addition to its simplistic messaging, it has simplistic characters and plot progressions. It never really attempts to subvert the audience’s expectations, nor does it try to have more complexity with its characters. Everything is just so simple and one-dimensional. This simplicity is why these films tend to under-perform. They are good on paper, and they don’t make a bunch of glaring mistakes, but they don’t provide the complexity in any capacity to bring in scale numbers. It takes itself far more seriously than Spider-Man: Homecoming, yet its characters are nowhere near as deep as Spider-Man of the Vulture.
This film, like its predecessors are good, but they never threaten being great. They are too competently made, and have too much skill involved with the film-making process to be stupid or outright bad, but they simply lack the kind of payoff off and satisfaction that a film with more complexity can provide.