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Josh Reviews War For the Planet of the Apes!

It is a major cinematic miracle that the rebooted Planet of the Apes series is as great as it is.  It would be oh so easy to get this series completely wrong.  (See: Tim Burton’s Ape Lincoln.)  I remain staggered that someone ever had the idea to basically use the fourth film in the original five-film Apes series from the seventies as the basis for a reboot, and flabbergasted that a major studio actually let that film get made.  And that it actually turned out to be good?  Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a great film, and the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was a masterpiece, one of the finest pieces of speculative fiction in recent memory.

Director Matt Reeves, returning from Dawn, brings the story to a conclusion with War For the Planet of the Apes.  Set some time after Dawn, we see the remnants of the American military, led by the enigmatic Colonel (Woody Harrelson), attempting to hunt down and destroy Caesar (Andy Serkis)’s colony of intelligent apes.  While the bulk of the colony attempts to flee beyond the Colonel’s reach, Caesar and his closest allies (the chimpanzee Rocket, the gorilla Luca, and the orangutan Maurice) set out to hunt down the Colonel in an attempt to end the ape-human conflict forever.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes remains the true magnum opus of this series.  That film’s richly emotional meditation on humanity, on peace and war, and on mercy and hate, is an extraordinary achievement that War is not ever able to top, in my opinion.  Nevertheless, I found War For the Planet of the Apes to be quite spectacular.  This is no dumb summer blockbuster.  War For the Planet of the Apes wrestles with complicated themes that most CGI-packed big-budget movies steer well clear of.  It is a deeply satisfying conclusion to this three-film saga, paying off characters who have become wonderfully developed over the course of the series.  (The film certainly leaves the door open to future installments, and I would be very happy to see this series continue well into the future.  But if the series ends here, it has come to a fine ending.)

If the film makes any mis-steps, it might just be that title.  Both Rise and Dawn ended with some terrific ape-versus-human carnage, and with a title like War For the Planet of the Apes, I expected this movie to escalate the action right from the get-go.  But War For the Planet of the Apes is not a bombastic action-adventure movie.  Instead, the film is a somber, elegiac tale of broken, near-desperate characters (ape and human) trying desperately to find a war forward for themselves and the people they love in a world that seems to have taken everything away from them.  This was not at all the movie I was expecting!  That gave me some cognitive dissonance as I was watching it, but as I have thought about the film I have found myself increasingly captivated by the story it told, and I love the way Matt Reeves’ film subverts our expectations for a blockbuster.  I just wonder if a less bombastic title might have set me and other audiences more in mind for the story that was actually being told.

The motion capture work in this film is beyond extraordinary.  The acting talent of all of the performers, most notably the great Andy Serkis, combined with the incredible CGI artistry on display, results in the creation of an array of incredibly realistic ape characters, each of whom are 100% convincing.  I believe in every one of these characters.  These are not CGI spectacles, these are real, live, breathing characters.  It is a jaw-dropping achievement.  Two minutes into the movie you completely forget that almost everything you are watching on-screen involves CGI.  These apes are real.

Once again Andy Serkis, who practically invented this art of motion-capture performance with his work as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, demonstrates his unparalleled skill in his work as Caesar.  This is a richly written role, and Mr. Serkis is unbelievably great.  Caesar has come so far from the young, idealistic ape we met in Dawn.  This Caesar has seen many horrors, and early in this film he suffers a terrible loss that shakes him to his core.  I love the arc given to Caesar in this film, as he begins to lose his capacity for empathy, succumbing to anger and a quest for vengeance, and being forced to realize that perhaps he is not so different from Koba (his nemesis in Dawn) after all.  War For the Planet of the Apes poses tough questions about leadership, about whether it is possible for a great leader to practice noble qualities such as mercy while still being fierce enough to be a capable protector for one’s people.  The film asks hard questions and avoids giving simple answers.  Caesar is the protagonist of the film and sometimes he is noble and heroic, and at other times he is ugly and flawed.  In Caesar’s voice and in his eyes, we see someone who has been through hell and isn’t sure of the way out.  This is a marvelous character, and Mr. Serkis is extraordinary in bringing Caesar so completely to life.

Terry Notary returns as Rocket and Karin Konoval returns as Maurice, Caesar’s two friends who have been in this series since Rise, and both once again do terrific work.  I truly love both of these characters now, and I worried about them (particularly Rocket) as the film progressed.  Toby Kebbell briefly reprises his character of Koba from Dawn, and he is again phenomenal in his short moments on screen.

Steve Zahn portrays a new ape character, known only as Bad Ape.  I love this character.  Mr. Zahn is comedic without tipping the film over into silliness.  He’s also a deeply sympathetic character, an ape whose entire identity has been shaped by those who abused him, to the degree that he only knows himself as Bad Ape.  There are so many levels to this character, so much that this film is saying through this character about the way that those who are victimized can be shaped by that abuse.  And yet Bad Ape is also a heroic character in how we see him rise above his past, face his fears and stand by his new friends and allies.

Woody Harrelson plays the main human character, the vicious Colonel.  Mr. Harrelson sticks out somewhat as a famous actor in this world, and it took me a little while to get used to his presence in the film.  And yet I must say that by the time we get to his scene with Caesar in his room, in which we hear the story of the Colonel’s son, I was entirely taken in by Mr. Harrelson’s performance.  I love that scene, it’s a highlight of the film, as we learn what demons drive the Colonel.

War For the Planet of the Apes draws deeply from Biblical imagery.  There is a lot of Exodus in the film, as a chosen leader attempts to free his people and lead them to a promised land on the other side of a desert.  There is Christ imagery as well, as Caesar is tortured and strung up, an apparent sacrifice on behalf of the innocents he wants to protect.  In the sequences in which we see the apes imprisoned in cages by the Colonel’s military men, forced to work without food or water, with tortures both physical and psychological heaped upon them, the film mines Holocaust/Concentration Camp imagery that is powerful and disturbing.  What’s so impressive about Mr. Reeves’ film (the screenplay was co-written by Mr. Reeves and Mark Bomback) is the way it is able to blend these disparate references together so smoothly, creating a film that feels original while also drawing its emotional power from the way we can see our own world echo in these events.

This is what the very best science-fiction does, using sci-fi scenarios to speak to us about our own world.  In today’s world of dumb, big-budget blockbusters, I love that all three of these rebooted Planet of the Apes films have always remembered to be ABOUT something.  The Colonel and his men fear the loss of their hegemony.  They demonize those different from them as a fearsome and loathsome “other.”  They try to build a big wall to keep their enemies away.  They believe that might makes right and that all manner of atrocities can be excused in the name of self-protection.  Does any of this sound at all familiar?  War For the Planet of the Apes wants us to take a step back and look at our lives and our world, and to examine the qualities that truly make us human.

I applaud Matt Reeves and his collaborators for creating such a rich, contemplative film.  I loved it and I can’t wait to see it again.

A few additional thoughts:  (Beware some SPOILERS below.)

* I wound up loving the character of Nova, enjoying both the young girl’s performance and the role the character played in the over-all story.  I love the way she acquired that name.  At the same time, I am puzzled as to whether this is meant to be the same character who Charlton Heston meets in the original Planet of the Apes.  I understand that this new series is meant to evoke the world of the original, without literally lining up with the events of that first film.  But still, the inclusion of Nova here (as well as learning that Caesar’s youngest son is named Cornelius) makes me wonder whether we’re meant to believe that we are only a decade or two before  the timeline of the original film?  Because otherwise I’d been thinking we were still hundreds of years distant.

* I was hoping for a hint as to the fates of any of the human characters from Dawn, but if any of that was in War then I missed it.

* One of my only complaints about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was that Caesar’s wife Cornelia, played by Judy Greer, wasn’t very fleshed out as a character.  We pay for that here in War, as a twist regarding Cornelia would land a lot harder had we gotten to know her better in Dawn.

* That being said, this film is packed with emotional beats and effective payoffs to the character relationships that have built over these three films.  There are some very affecting emotional moments involving these CGI apes!  I guess I can understand if some audience members just can’t bring themselves to invest in a film about intelligent apes, but I found myself completely wrapped up in the story.  The character-work and the emotional underpinnings to the story are rock-solid.  This is truly impressive work.

* I loved the way this film repeatedly nodded to the events of Beneath the Planet of the Apes.  Yes, I caught all that Alpha and Omega stuff!!  That was a cunning bit of misdirection, actually.  Because I was thinking about Beneath, once we learned that the Colonel’s base was atop an old military depot, I felt sure that a very destructive super-bomb would play a part in the film’s finale.  Such was not the case.  (When Rocket and Maurice started digging around in tunnels underneath the Colonel’s base, I also started hoping that we’d get to see some subterranean mutants!!  Sadly, no.  Maybe in the next film.)

* I did love the way the film started to show us how and why the humans began devolving into the mute creatures we knew from the original Apes.

* I loved seeing those X-shaped racks in the Colonel’s outpost.  Being very familiar with the opening sequences of the original Apes, I knew what those were used for.  Nice callback.

* I am curious where geographically the events of this film were meant to take place.  Those early shots of the apes on horseback riding across the beach were very evocative (intentionally so, I am sure!!) of the end of the original Apes film!  That was cool.  (But sadly no buried Statue of Liberty was in sight.)

* Was the desert the apes crossed at the end of the film the “Forbidden Zone”??  Heh heh.

* While the Apes series is known for its downbeat endings, I was surprised that this film actually had a fairly optimistic ending!  But it felt well-earned, and I was satisfied.

* One thing that dissatisfied me, though, about the ending, was the movie-silly idea that Caesar wasn’t bothered by his wound for all the days or weeks that it took the apes to reach their promised land, only for him to suddenly feel the effects as soon as they had arrived.  I rolled my eyes a bit at that.  A rare misstep for a mostly spectacular film.

* How amazing is it that so much of the dialogue of this film is communicated via sign language??  That’d be an extraordinarily bold choice for any film, particularly this type of CGI-packed summer release.

Once again I applaud Matt Reeves and his entire team for creating such a smart, sophisticated film disguised as a summer blockbuster.  I wish this film as getting more attention.  As a longtime Planet of the Apes fan, I feel deeply lucky that these new films have been of such amazingly high quality.  Bravo.

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