Woody Harrelson – a great American screen actor – obviously has a bee in his bonnet about wishing he’d played Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. In The Duel (2016) he applied smatterings of cool water to his bald pate a la Brando as he portrayed The Preacher, a philosophical sociopath and the cult leader of a small town in the American West. Now, in the third of this round of movies in the official Planet of the Apes universe (which includes the original series that began in 1968 but which excludes Tim Burton’s 2001 misfire), Harrelson again pays homage to Brando’s Kurtz many times as the cult leader of a squad of American soldiers out to rid our planet… of the apes.
Indeed, there are so many references to Kurtz and Apocalypse Now (including graffiti at the soldier’s camp that says “Ape-Pocalypse Now”!) that you have to wonder where homage ends and rip-off begins. This is an excellent movie, but the script has cribbed Coppola’s Vietnam masterpiece so blatantly that you wonder whether the filmmakers are simply assuming most of their audience are too young to have seen it.
Caesar the ape (Andy Serkis, excellent) takes on the Willard role, travelling “upriver” – or in this case, northerly from California towards Oregon – to assassinate the Colonel Kurtz-like “Colonel” (Harrelson). Along the way, he and his small band of comrades encounter ambushes, evidence of barbarity, and solidarity. When they finally arrive at The Colonel’s compound, they find apes lashed vertically to wooden crucifix-like structures, as Willard and his merry crew did, with humans, as they arrived at Kurtz’s. So, while the screenplay doesn’t credit Coppola – it should. (The story beats continue to ape Apocalypse Now but I won’t spoil).
It’s kind of fascinating that this year’s Kong: Skull Island, which also featured apes (and also featured Terry Notary as an ape) was also directly and heavily influenced by Apocalypse Now. What is it with that film and apes? But whereas Kong: Skull Island was funny and fluffy (and brief), War For The Planet of the Apes is deadly earnest with an epic running time. It’s serious stuff, and works as such – indeed, one of its missteps is a comedic character, played by Steve Zahn, whose every moment derails the somber tone jarringly.
It is this tone that is so refreshing. This is a big Hollywood studio product designed to make enormous pots of cash, but it is mournful, elegiac and takes its time. There are magnificent action set-pieces but the vast bulk of the running time is spent on character moments, many ape-to-ape. The technology has become so freaking incredible that director Matt Reeves is able to shoot long dialogue scenes between Serkis and, for example, Maurice (Karin Konoval) in extreme close-up. And when there are big groups of apes (actually, the actual term is a shrewdness of apes – look it up) the effect is breath-taking.
At times, the film sags with its propensity towards ponderousness. Perhaps it takes itself a little too seriously. But, as a (possible) conclusion to this round of the storytelling, it can be forgiven for its epic aspirations. As a trilogy, this simian saga earns righteous holding next to the Lord of the Rings movies and the original three Star Wars films. And like with those trilogies, the second is the best, the first is the most fun, and the last is a long, noble conclusion.