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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

* * *

Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson

Humans. We had a good run. We irreparably damaged parts of the planet, we wiped out hundreds of other species, we developed all kinds of inventive ways to destroy each other. You can't say we didn't leave it all on the field. Now it's time to celebrate a new champion and maybe the apes will be able to do it all better. War for the Planet of the Apes, which is the final chapter in this particular part of the Apes series (though almost certainly not the final Planet of the Apes movie), finds humanity on the brink, not yet ready to give up even though the writing is so clearly on the wall. It's a mournful film, probably not the sort of thing that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of a summer entertainment, and one which unlike its two immediate predecessors does not feel the need to find any good in humans, but it's the film that it needs to be. It's a good movie and a grand spectacle and if the powers that be intend to keep it up, then I can't wait to see where the series goes from here.

War takes place two years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his followers still living in the Muir Woods and on guard against what remains of humanity, which here takes the form of the Alpha-Omega army under the command of the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After the bloody clash that opens the film, Caesar begins making plans to relocate to a place that Blue Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones) and Rocket (Terry Notary) have discovered on a reconnaissance mission, a place where they reason that humans won't follow as a desert has to be crossed to get to it. Before they can leave, the Alpha-Omega makes a second attack and afterwards Caesar, filled with a desire for vengeance, sends what remains of his tribe forward with the intention that he will go alone in a different direction and on a mission to kill the Colonel. Unwilling to let their leader go into certain death, Rocket, Maurice (Karin Konoval), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) insist on going with him to provide backup.

Directed by Matt Reeves (who also directed Dawn), War for the Planet of the Apes uses a lot of Vietnam War iconography to set its stage, which will be no surprise to anyone who watched the trailers and saw Harrelson made up like half a Marlon Brando. In case the Apocalypse Now references were too subtle, late in the film the camera rests on a wall across which the words "APE-POCALYPSE NOW" have been scrawled, but if you're extraordinary-ape-in-a-Vietnam-allegory-ied out after Skull Island have no fear because the Vietnam imagery is just some of what War is working with. Mid-way through it becomes a western then a Holocaust movie and it ends as a Biblical epic. Reeves has a lot of tricks up his sleeve and he mixes them to pretty good effect, creating a film that is tense, often moving, and sometimes even funny (largely through the addition of Bad Ape, a former resident of the zoo played by Steve Zahn).

The effects work, as has been the case with the last two Apes films, is amazing and the strength of the film (and the series as a whole) lies in how well it's able to explore the various apes as characters and their relationships with each other, even though few of them speak (though all sign) and they're, well, animals (and they're not even really animals, at that). Where the previous two films built themselves on positive relationships between humans and apes and the idea that humans could forge a peaceful relationship with the apes, this one limits humans in both screen time and in sympathy, viewing them at their most savage, desperate, and unrootable. Almost all of the humanity to be found in the film belongs to the apes, which is a good thing because the apes are the characters we care about, having watched them across two films already, and because the technology is there to make it viable to make a 140 minute movie in which you go stretches without seeing a single person. While it's unlikely that motion capture performances will ever be able to break through to nominations in Oscar's acting categories, Serkis once again gives one of the year's best, most nuanced, and most moving performances as Caesar, and Konoval and Zahn are also great as Maurice and Bad Ape.

I liked War for the Planet of the Apes a lot, though I confess that I wasn't crazy about the ending. By that I'm not speaking of the narrative resolution, as the film ends its story in a way that's satisfying and which makes sense, on top of dispatching what remains of humanity in a way that is almost operatic in its sweep and equal parts farce and tragedy. What I mean is that the end of the final scene, though the content of it is fine, is shot in a way that felt really... cheesy to me, which in turn left me feeling like the film ended on a weak note. But, really, this accounts for maybe one minute of the film's screen time and the other 139 minutes more than make up for it. War for the Planet of the Apes might not be the most "fun" movie of the summer, but it's certainly one of the best.

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