The original Planet of the Apes was a groundbreaking movie in 1968, so it’s no wonder that many sequels followed it. Most of the ones I saw were pretty lame—so much so that I lost interest in the franchise. However, my interest was revived with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011 and its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014. Now, the origin story is complete with War for the Planet of the Apes, which I saw in Dolby Vision HDR and Atmos immersive sound.
The movie begins with a short, clever synopsis of the previous two installments, so it’s not necessary to have seen them before watching this one—though I highly recommend doing so. To recap, humans develop an experimental drug to treat Alzheimer’s Disease that greatly increases the intelligence of ape test subjects, who escape the lab and establish their own colony in the forest of Northern California. Meanwhile, the experiment has an unintended consequence—it spawns the Simian Virus, which wipes out most of humanity. Those who remain struggle to survive, and many fear the newly intelligent apes.
In War for the Planet of the Apes, what’s left of the US Army tries to wipe out the ape population once and for all. Heading this effort is Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), who targets the ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis). The Colonel is single-minded—and singularly brutal—in his obsession to destroy the apes and save humanity from extinction, while Caesar is conflicted, at least at first. But his resolve hardens when it becomes clear that this is a war for the survival of all apes. As he says, “I didn’t start this war. But I will finish it.”
Despite the movie’s inherent darkness, there are also lighter moments, especially in the character of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who escaped from a zoo after the pandemic broke out and learned to speak while hiding from the ape pogrom. And while Woody Harrelson’s performance isn’t what I’d call “light,” he beautifully channels Marlon Brando in his role as renegade Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, complete with clean-shaven dome—though why he appears before his assembled troops while shaving his head is quite beyond me.
As in the first two installments of this trilogy, the apes are CGI (computer-generated images) animated according to the movements of the actors using mocap (motion-capture) technology. It’s amazingly effective—much better than the ape suits worn by the actors in the original movie and its sequels—blending seamlessly with the live-action human characters. Andy Serkis deserves all the accolades he gets for his nuanced portrayal of Caesar, which is captured beautifully in his facial close-ups.
The movie includes many harbingers of the 1968 outing. For example, we learn why humans became mute and animal-like. And when the Colonel says to Caesar, “This is our last stand, and if we lose, it will be a planet of apes”—well, you get the idea.
But the timeline is all wrong. The original Planet of the Apes is set 2000 years after the astronauts left Earth in 1972, yet in the current movie, we learn that Cornelius (Judy Greer) is the son of Caesar. Of course, the Cornelius featured in the original movie (played by Roddy McDowall) could be another ape of the same name many generations later. Then there’s Nova (Amiah Miller), an orphaned human girl adopted by Caesar and his team of guerrilla fighters—only one of whom is actually a gorilla. In the original, an adult Nova (Linda Harrison) is captured by the apes and treated no better than the other humans—and again, it’s nearly 2000 years later than the events of War for the Planet of the Apes.
Update: I had forgotten that, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, there are some TV and newspaper stories in the background about the Icarus spacecraft on a manned mission to Mars that had lost contact with Earth. If the ship were to return, say, 20 years after the events of War for the Planet of the Apes, it would be a perfect setup for a remake of the original 1968 movie, but with a timeline that is coherent with the trilogy. If that’s the plan, I eagerly await the next installment!
The Dolby Vision HDR imagery is spectacular. Blacks are true black, with lots of shadow detail in dark scenes. That detail remains clear even in the presence of super-bright highlights, such as the sun in the background. One truly amazing shot is in a cave as human soldiers are hunting for apes—the pitch-blackness is pierced by the soldiers’ bright-green laser sights. When I saw that, all I could think was, “Wow!”
Likewise, the Atmos soundtrack is awesome, with many sound effects located throughout the 3D soundfield. For example, in the initial battle between apes and humans, the sound of arrows flying all around almost made me duck, and falling rain truly engulfed the audience. Also, the music is effectively mixed well into the room. Speaking of which, this is another superb score by Michael Giacchino, with lots of ethnic instruments combined with a more traditional orchestra.
As I’ve measured several times recently, the levels were too high. Leq (average RMS level over the entire length of the movie plus trailers) = 96.9 dBZ (flat), 89.8 dBA, 96.2 dBC; Lmax (maximum 1-second RMS level) = 119.4 dBZ; L10 (level exceeded 10% of the time) = 99.9 dBZ; L50 (level exceeded 50% of the time) = 85.5 dBZ. The average was nearly 5 dB over reference level. A friend at Dolby is pretty sure that the AMC Burbank 16 Dolby Cinema has the level control on its Dolby audio processor set to 7, which is where it should be. That means the soundtrack was mixed at this level. I really wish audio crews wouldn’t do that!
Even though it’s too loud and there are some incongruities in its connection with the original Planet of the Apes, I thoroughly enjoyed War for the Planet of the Apes. Caesar’s struggle to reconcile his wish to peacefully coexist with humans and his desire for revenge at the cruel, inhuman treatment of his kind is a poignant through line that captures the imagination with a complexity rarely seen in Hollywood blockbusters. As A.O. Scott concludes in his excellent review for the New York Times, “…it’s good to see a movie so thoroughly humane.”