War for the Planet of the ApesReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/13/17 08:46:36
Of course, it is no longer unusual these days for any reasonably popular film to score itself a sequel or two, if not its own full-fledged screen universe—half the time, such things are already in the planning stages before the initial movie even comes out. However, how often do you get a screen franchise where the films get smarter, better and more ambitious as they continue to go along? Such a thing is rare indeed, though I think most moviegoers would agree that the “Mad Max” and “Toy Story” sagas managed to pull this trick off. Most of the time, you get a decent first film—if you are lucky—followed by additional entries that only serve the rehash things that have already been done the first time around in the hopes of scoring another hit at the box-office with a minimum of effort.My guess is that when it was announced that the “Planet of the Apes” series was getting yet another reboot, few could have possibly expected that such a thing could possibly occur—after all, the original franchise as a whole was never quite as good as one might have hoped, despite the 1968 original’s deserved placement in the pop culture firmament, and the 2001 revival under the aegis of Tim Burton was one of those seemingly can’t-miss propositions that proceeded to do exactly that to such an extent that even though it made money, it inspired no sequels. And yet, when it debuted in 2011, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” proved to be one of the happiest surprises of the current blockbuster era—a brilliant piece of popular filmmaking that was both technologically astonishing and emotionally satisfying, especially regarding to Andy Serkis’s amazing motion-capture performance as central ape Caesar, that provoked and entertained viewers instead of just offering them empty-headed nostalgia. This was followed by “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014) and while that film might not have had quite the impact of its predecessor at first glance—people were clearly expecting that one to be good—it managed to improve on it by expanding on its mythology in inventive ways and by following a narrative path that grappled with real and recognizable concerns and which was not afraid to go to darker areas when needed.
Now comes “War of the Planet of the Apes,” a film that has to live up to the multiple challenges of working on its own terms as an individual movie, living up to the high standards set by its two predecessors and, if the rumors suggesting that it will be the final entry in the series (at least in its present iteration), wrap up the narrative that has been spun out over the three films in a satisfying manner. Any one of those goals would be difficult enough to pull off and to somehow achieve them all would be a challenge of the highest order. However, the film succeeds at every single one of those goals with in such a fascinating and striking manner that even those coming into it with the highest of expectations will find them exceeded by this insanely ambitious work that offer up one visually dazzling moment after another along with the kind of complex storytelling and fully-drawn characters of the kind rarely seen in ostensibly serious-minded cinema, let alone in one of the main competitors in the annual summer box-office derby.
After a couple of title cards summing up the earlier films and bringing viewers up to speed, “War for the Planet of the Apes” begins with a platoon of human soldiers, aided by a few apes who have chose to follow them over their own kind, stumbling upon the hidden woodland compound of Caesar (Serkis), the increasingly disillusioned ape leader who wants only to live in peace with his own kind and who refuses to instigate any conflicts with humans. However, that doesn’t mean that he won’t fight to defend himself and other apes and when the humans do attack, Caesar and his followers make short work of them, though he does extend mercy to one by allowing him to return from where he came with a message demanding to be left alone. This good deed does not go unpunished as the increasingly unhinged leader of the human troops, known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), launches a sneak attack on Caesar’s hideout. Although Caesar survives the attack, he nevertheless suffers a terrible personal loss as a result.
In the previous film, Caesar, whose ultimate dream was to find some point of connection between man and ape that could lead to a peaceful coexistence, found himself in conflict with Koba (Toby Kebbel), an angry ape who was all for instigating war against the humans and killing them all. Back then, Caesar rejected such notions but now, he finally recognizes those darker impulses and elects to set off on a journey to find and kill the Colonel. Accompanying him along the way are chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and the loyal orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and along the way, they are joined by a former zoo attraction known only as Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and a little human girl (Amiah Miller), mute as the result of the Simian Flu that started everything, who is left orphaned after a skirmish between the apes and her father. Eventually the group tracks down the Colonel at his own compound—a virtual primate concentration camp—where Caesar finds himself confronting his enemy, not to mention his demons, in a way that could pave the way for a final winner-take-all battle between man and ape.
In “Rise” and “Dawn,” the filmmakers were enormously sympathetic to Caesar but still told their stories through the perspective of their more sympathetic human characters. This time around, the film seems to start off that way in the opening minutes but director/co-writer Matt Reeves (who also did “Dawn”) offers an unexpected switch by shifting the focus entirely on Caesar and pushing the humans almost entirely to the background until the climactic confrontation with the Colonel. This is an enormously risky proposition for a couple of reasons—not only does it mean that the entire film revolves around an effects-generated central performance that not only has to completely convince from start to finish for it to work but it also requires audiences to put themselves in the undeniably weird position of rooting for the eradication of their very own species during the finale. Happily, the enormous gamble Reeves has taken here has paid off spectacularly—the shift in perspective offers a fascinating new take on the material that grabs and holds interest throughout and the performance by Serkis is extraordinary and extraordinarily convincing throughout. Ever since Serkis became the undisputed king of motion-capture performance with his work as Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films, there have been movements to try to get Academy members to overcome their prejudices towards performances that have been enhanced with visual effects and nominate him for an Oscar. These petitions have never held much interest for me in the past but after seeing his work here, I am now perfectly willing to jump on the bandwagon because his soulful turn as Caesar is as direct and moving as any that I have seen from any conventional flesh-and-blood performer so far this year.
At the same time, “War for the Planet of the Apes” has more than just Serkis’s performance going for it. Besides expanding their dramatic horizons with each new entry, the “Apes” films have also been getting bigger and bolder regarding their visual scope and this film is pretty much a swing-for-the-fences epic from start to finish. Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin have combined to make a film in which every single moment—whether it is a quiet contemplation of Caesar and his surroundings or one of the massive action sequences—is striking to the eye and even contains sly visual homages to such classics as “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Apocalypse Now” for good measure. The performances from the entire cast are strong, with Harrelson doing some of the best and most quietly unnerving work of his entire career as the deeply disturbed Colonel who turns out to be harboring a few secrets of his own. And while the film as a whole is as serious-minded as its predecessors, there are even a few welcome moments of humor as well, ranging from the endearing Steve Zahn performance to a long-awaited moment of poop-flinging that is actually kind of inspired.For the most part, however, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is fairly dark and harrowing in parts (especially in the genuinely grim material involving the imprisoned apes and their mistreatment at the hands of the Colonel and his men) and parents contemplating taking their younger children to see it based on hazy memories of the old “Apes” movies (which had a greater abundance of lighter material to help leaven the dark places that they would occasionally go) should really rethink taking them to see what could well prove to be nightmare fuel for the more sensitive kids out there. Beyond that, this is top-notch filmmaking that proves that a film can work as a hugely entertaining popcorn entertainment and still be smart and thoughtful and ambitious at the same time. Of course, the film does leave a little bit of wiggle room in the final moments for the series to continue—though it would almost certainly have to introduce a new overarching storyline rather than try to stretch this one out any further—and if one were to come along in a couple of years, I would be happy to check it out. If that is not the case, however, then “War of the Planet of the Apes” can be celebrated for not only being a worthy installment of one of the best screen trilogies of recent memory but for pulling off the equally difficult task of ending it on just the right note as well.
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