Wednesday, August 9, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes


Directed by Matt Reeves.
Rated PG-13, 140 minutes.
Cast:
Andy Serkis
Woody Harrelson
Steve Zahn
Amiah Miller
Karin Konoval
Ty Olsson
Terry Notary
Toby Kebbell
Gabriel Chavarria

The first two films in the current iteration of The Planet of the Apes franchise took great pains to develop its hero, Caesar (Serkis), and the rest of the apes into full-fledged thinking and emotional beings. With the passing of each minute of each film, they become more and more cognizant of their own mortality and their evolving place in the world. Yes, the visuals in these movies have been stellar and the action scenes, solid. However, it’s through that emotion the series has made its bones. It’s pulled off one of the more admirable sleights of hand of recent cinematic history. They made a villain out of every human being in the viewing audience and made it work. Coming into the third film of the trilogy, the trick is a bit tougher to perform. The saga is already set up so that whether humans or apes come out victorious, it’s going be a bit on the grim side. They also have to maintain our affection for the hero without turning him into either a parody or trumped up version of himself. A series built on empathy cannot afford to have its protagonist suddenly become an indestructible super-being. The task of maintaining Caesar’s…um…humanity, for lack of a better word, is made that much more difficult by the mythology forced upon him by the other apes. For all intents and purposes, they view him as a messiah and themselves as disciples. We are reminded of this throughout the film as other apes consistently bow when he graces their presence or humans voice how impressed they are with him. However, heavy lies the head that wears the crown. We get to see and feel Caesar’s burdens as the events of the film unfold.

Those events start two years after the conclusion of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The apes are locked in battle with humans and operating from a fairly secret location in the woods. It’s not that the humans don’t know the apes are there. They don’t know Caesar is there. The humans make up an especially nasty outfit of soldiers who call themselves The Alpha and Omega, or the beginning and the end. They are led by a man known only as The Colonel (Harrelson). He has taken a hardline approach to dealing with the apes. When he finds out where Caesar is, The Colonel personally visits the area where the apes are and kills Caesar’s wife and son. This, of course, sends Caesar into a rage. He soon finds himself on a mission to kill The Colonel even as he sends the rest of the apes off to find sanctuary somewhere else. With only a few apes by his side, Caesar heads towards the human compound in an effort to exact his revenge.

Through it all, our feelings for Caesar intensify as the film progresses. He is never less than the focal point of our emotional involvement. Some excellent writing lays the foundation for this. Matt Reeves, who doubles as director, and Mark Bomback supply us with a script that fully understands that Caesar is an individual behind a myth, vulnerable with great responsibility and still growing. The character often contemplates his own arc, and laments the path he, all of the apes, and the humans are travelling. All of this might fall apart, though, if not for the magnificent work turned in by Andy Serkis, the man in the digital monkey suit, and the visual fx team that brought Caesar to life. It’s difficult to divvy up the credit because the work of either would be less than fully realized without the other. This seamless melding of reality and virtuality is the height of techno-wizardry as it pertains to characterization. It doesn’t stop with Caesar, either. All of the apes are amazing. Each has their own personality with varying levels of intelligence.


As brilliantly rendered as Caesar and the other apes are, they would fall flat if not for an equally dynamic villain. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel is just that. Like the best bad guys, The Colonel believes, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he is in the right. It is the apes that are a threat to the survival of humanity. They are the evil that needs to be extinguished and he has put himself in charge of their extinction. Harrelson is magnificent as the wild-eyed man out to put down what he calls the “unholy empire.” He breathes incendiary life into a man with no less a job than preserving the human race. Like with Caesar, his performance is built on outstanding writing. The Colonel is the character that creates the jumping off point for the film’s social commentary. He is also the first character in the trilogy to clearly push racially charged metaphors. Through him, we get White Supremacy in many forms. He echoes Hitler, enforces slavery, and even builds a wall, a la the intentions of President Trump. His musings have a definite White angst tone including a thinly veiled fear of otherness. They are also heavily influenced by Apocalypse Now just like 2017’s other ape movie, Kong: Skull Island. The Colonel is most certainly a madman who has declared himself ruler amongst savages.

Not surprisingly, the slavery references are most startling. True to the actual, and atrocious institution as it was practiced here in the United States, slaves were treated harshly, including being corporally punished with a whip by other slaves. Those doing the punishing were given preferential treatment, but even they were little more than pets used to keep others in line or get juiced for information needed to maintain their master’s position of dominance. No matter how well-treated any of them are, they are never regarded as anything other than the slur scrawled across their backs. In this case, “Donkey” stands in for the n-word. It’s all pretty harsh, but serves as obstacles for the apes to overcome and a constant reminder of why Caesar is so important. He feels like the last thing standing between freedom and the entire planet being under the rule of a violent sociopath.

For all the depth this film gives us, it still has the task of being a summer blockbuster. As such, it’s a little out of place with the other types of movies in the multiplex this time of year. Though it’s rated PG-13, there are some very good action sequences, fantastic visuals, and the language is mild compared to your average superhero flick, it may be too ponderous a film for those looking for mindless entertainment. Sure, it’s a film about talking apes, but it never sacrifices story for spectacle. If anything, it does the reverse. That’s an odd thing to say about a movie where the apes not only talk, they ride horses, but it’s true. This is much more an appeal to your heart than your eyes. It’s deliberately paced, but still manages to move along at a nice pace. The first half of the film concerns itself with the characters learning about their opposition and travelling towards them. The second leans all the way into its themes and goes about the business of wrapping up this trilogy. It does so by tying almost perfectly into the 1968 original. This makes the ultimate result, a bittersweet ending if ever there was one, predictable, but how we get there is anything but. Great films don’t have to fool us. However, they must put us on a journey with the hero and make us feel each step as if we took it ourselves. War for the Planet of the Apes does this.


Possible 2017 Dellies Consideration: Best Actor (Andy Serkis), Best Supporting Actor (Woody Harrelson), Best Villain (Woody Harrelson), Best Voice-Over Performance (Andy Serkis, Steve Zahn), Best Ensemble, Best Overall Technical Achievement, Best Director (Matt Reeves)


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15 comments:

  1. I do want to see this although I think it's going to leave theaters as there's just other films coming out that I want to see. I'll catch it on TV as I do like those films.

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    1. Though I saw it in a theater, and the visuals are great, it's not one of those films where the scale is such that you "have" to see it on a big screen. It's a much more intimate film than that even if the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

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  2. Great review! As a huge fan of this franchise, this film was everything I wanted it to be, even though it made me so sad. I can't wait to own it on DVD.

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    1. Thanks! It was an amazing film. One of my faves so far this year.

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  3. I'm sure the whole franchise is great, especially this one but I saw the trailer for it twice before Dunkirk and it looked like the bleakest thing ever...like Logan but with not Hugh to perv over to ease my pain over what is happening there

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    1. Interesting you bring up Logan. It does have a good deal in common with that movie. But yeah, don't think you'll get to do any perving unless you're into apes...or Woody Harrelson.

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  4. Excellent post, Dell. Really.

    I still can't fathom that this trilogy exists in the first place, and that it truly has gotten better with each film. Reeves and his crew (and I guess the audience too, I suppose) have shown such patience, such care with every step, it's nothing short of a remarkable achievement. I eagerly await your telling of the hand Movie God had in all of this. Divinity is certainly afoot.

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    1. I definitely need to do one of those posts soon.

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  5. Happy you enjoyed it. I'm glad I too saw it in cinema as the cinematography and SFX are great. As you know, I got teary-eyed watching this one, I agree it's the emotions that make the trilogy work, especially Dawn and War, which expanded on the ape personalities. How do you rank the reboot trilogy?

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    1. At the risk of sounding like one of those people who always thinks the latest thing is the greatest, I rank them in reverse order of release: 1) War 2) Dawn 3) Rise. That said, I love all three.

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    2. We have the same ranking. War was my favorite too.

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  6. Great review! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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  7. I think this is the best trilogy that's being made in the 21st century. It doesn't have a single weak link in its chain and consistently improves with every addition. I think you hit the nail right on the head with all points of praise for this film and the entire series. It never succumbs to the pressure for it to be a summer blockbuster. Even when it has apes riding horses, driving tanks and generally being badass, there's a fantastic emotion to it that very few films have the patience or skill to portray.

    I also think the trilogy has incredible social relevance. There are obvious correlations to slavery and a certain orange President - as you said - but there are also moments of fantastic finesse and subtlety. You said that the previous film made everyone in the audience feel like a villain but I think it went a step further and was far more delicate. The film never feels like a simple story of man vs ape. Yes, that's the basic premise but the foundations of the story are about two opposing groups - one with power of the other and the resultant revolution that precedes a change in power.

    This ambiguity allows the film to be more relateable. You can substitute any two opposing groups into the story and it still functions well. That's the beauty of the series.

    Andy Serkis and the visual effects team deserve Oscars! The work they do here is groundbreaking.

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