A film review by Craig J. Koban July 24, 2017

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

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2017, PG-13, 142 mins.

 

Andy Serkis as Caesar  /  Woody Harrelson as Colonel  /  Karin Konoval as Maurice  /  Steve Zahn as Bad Ape  /  Amiah Miller as Nova  /  Judy Greer as Cornelia

Directed by Matt Reeves  /  Written by Reeves and Mark Bomback

 

 

SCREENED IN
3D

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is the third entry in the rebooted series of the iconic franchise of yesteryear...and it's far and away the most emotionally enriching, dramatically gripping, and thematically compelling entry yet.  

Writer/director Matt Reeves - triumphantly returning to the helm after successfully quarterbacking the last installment, 2014's DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES - has essentially perfected here what a PLANET OF THE APES movie can be, and one that combines breathtakingly astounding visual effects married to a potent narrative that brings the trilogy tale of Caesar to a thrilling climax and satisfying closure.  Caesar may be the product of some of the finest motion capture VFX ever conceived on the silver screen, but he has fully emerged through this franchise as one of the more iconic and memorable characters of the movies.  

The fact that he's a talking ape doesn't even matter at this point. 

 

 

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES provides a hauntingly chilling character arc for this ape messiah and leader (played in arguably the most layered and intriguing performance of Andy Serkis' career, motion capture or not) as he once again struggles to find a harmonious existence for his kind separate from a pocket of post-apocalyptic humans that want to eradicate his species off the planet.   The stakes in this installment are decidedly deeper and more tragically intimate for Caesar, who now is forced to deal with an incalculable personal loss that forces him to challenge his own self-imposed quest for peace while dealing with a blood lusting thirst for vengeance against a man that has mightily wronged him.  Like greatest examples of idea driven science fiction, WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is not ostensibly crammed with action, violence, and spectacle; it hones in on morally complex scripting that throws up a mirror to contemporary social/cultural ills.  As a dark and somber parable of own troubling times, WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES feels sweepingly timely. 

But make no mistake about it, the word war is in this film's title for a reason, and Reeves doesn't hold back on awe inspiring set pieces here.  Set 15 or so years after the near human decimating simian flu was unleashed on the world (leading to the evolution of the Caesar's apes and the devolution of mankind), the tenuous relationship between man and ape has reached a boiling point.  When we last saw Caesar and company he emerged victorious - but mentally scarred - from his battle with a back stabbing former friend turned enemy Koba, who flagrantly disobeyed Caesar's orders and the most holy of ape commandment: ape shall never kill ape.  In the aftermath of this, Caesar and his forest dwelling residents have been dealing with brutal conflicts with man, this time with an extremely Colonel Kurtz-ian...Colonel (who's never given a name in the film, played by a wickedly deranged and exceedingly well cast Woody Harrelson), who heads up squadron of devoted military zealots known as Alpha/Omega that's hell bent on destroying the apes once and for all.  Early in the film the Colonel perpetrates a sneak attack on Caesar's home, which leads to a few apes being terminated and immediately sends Caesar into an hostile tempered plan for violent comeuppance.   

Willing to stop at nothing to ensure that the Colonel is eliminated with extreme prejudice, Caesar sends most of his ape family (including his infant son Cornelius, a nice ode to the original films) to safety while he embarks on a journey of obsessive revenge.  With a few of his most trusted and loyal companions, including Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar and company make the dangerous trek to the Colonel's secret compound, picking up a few new allies along the way, including an orphaned mute human girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) and a somewhat bumbling ape that recently escaped a zoo named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn).  When Caesar does locate the Colonel and his militia he's shocked to discover that he has interned and enslaved all of the remaining apes for his own nefarious purposes.  Unfortunately, Caesar finds himself captured, which culminates in a fateful meeting with the deranged Colonel, whom is revealed to be a madman with his own deeply rooted emotional pains. 

The one thing that becomes readily apparent from the get-go about WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is that Reeves has clearly studied legendary genre films of the past as a source of abundant inspiration.  War films like APOCALYPSE NOW seems like the most obvious example, but western classics like THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES also comes to mind in the sense that this Clint Eastwood film also deals with a man driven to avenge the deaths of loved ones.  WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES has the requisite accoutrements of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre, but it hybrids them with the look and feel of a desolate western and a world weary war film.  Yet, the overall arc of Caesar's quest to travel into the heart of darkness that is the Colonel's lair has the most definitive echoes to Francis Ford Coppola's aforementioned film.   

Of course, the enthralling scripting of these new APES films are what really helps cement them apart from most other obligatory summer blockbusters, which usually rely of a heavy preponderance of numbing and fatiguing eye candy.  WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES has an uncommon thematic density as it delves into the horrors of racism, the ravages of war, and how a ravenous thirst for violence - both on the human and ape side - leads to the whole world going morally bankrupt.  The film also asks challenging questions about its main hero's own righteousness, especially for how Caesar's unstoppable desire to murder the Colonel clouds his sense of compassionate right and wrong and his past unwillingness to wage war, traits that have come to define the character over the course of the series.  Rather intriguingly, Caesar has become the very tunnel visioned extremist that Koba became in DAWN FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, which further propels Caesar down a toxic rabbit hole of inner chaos and ethical confusion.   

Serkis is as thanklessly brilliant as ever when it comes to running the full gambit of relaying Caesar's conflicting emotional state here.  This is a character that has been dealt up terrible losses during the course of the three films that he has occupied, and perhaps more so now than ever you truly feel that he's been driven to an infuriating breaking point that will essentially cost him his stature of as a supreme leader with a melancholic soul.  And yes, Weta Digital's visual effects work here is arguably the greatest ever achieved for a mainstream film.  Unlike so much CG imagery that feels like it's ostentatiously drawing needless attention to itself, the marvelous work here seems invisible: We rarely, if ever, feel like Caesar and the apes are the product of technologically fakery...they come off like real hyper intelligent apes.  Reeves is wise enough of a filmmaker to intuitively understand that cutting edge and pioneering effects can only achieve a level of transcending allure when we grow less and less conscious of their existence on screen.  Serkis' limitlessly expressive performance comes through the digital makeup and never feels buried or burdened by it.   

The characters surrounding Caesar are also well drawn, especially Maurice, who continually serves as his leader's voice of reason when he sees him succumbing to his more baser impulses.  The discovery and inclusion of the human girl Nova serves as loving nod to the original series, but it also helps reinforce a new tantalizing plot thread as to how the simian virus has mutated with new side effects for humans.  Zahn inhabits a new ape character that could have been the source of hammy comic relief as Bad Ape, but he infuses such oddball mischievous charm into the role that he never becomes an eye rolling disturbance.  Arguably the most thought provoking new addition to the cast is Harrelson as the Colonel, who superficially comes off as a one note militarized sociopath replete with army fatigues, a shaved cranium, grease paint, and penchant for wanton destruction.  Yet, Harrelson is a strong enough actor to never overplay his villain to cartoonish effect and instead makes his colonel a figure - like Caesar - that was driven over the edge because of past trauma.  When Caesar and the Colonel do confront one another it's handled with dialogue and the characters mentally sizing each other up; Reeves drums up the disquieting unease and tension of these moments with words, not action.  And the final climatic showdown between them both ends on a note of pathetic poetic justice.   

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES builds towards an exhilarating third act that's viscerally powerful on a level of propulsive action, but it also culminates in a few key moments that pack an unexpected dramatic wallop.  In the end, the film becomes a study of human on ape brutality, which helps spawn Caesar back into the role of a cunning freedom fighter looking to fully liberate his kind, but not without making some dire sacrifices along the way.  There have been hints that this will indeed be the final entry in this Caesar centric PLANET OF THE APES reboot trilogy, and Reeves manages to miraculously find a manner of bring a sense of closure to Caesar's arc while simultaneously leaving the door open to potential future films that could directly tie into the events of the 1968 universe spawning original.  That's no easy feat, seeing as far too many big budget summer tentpole blockbusters these days seem hell bent of future world building at the expense of crafted solid single installments that work well on their own terms.  Reeves, like a George Lucas and Steven Spielberg before him, has now joined the ranks of great visionary mythmaking directors with his APE trilogy, and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES brings his rebooted vision of a cherished sci-fi classic to masterful fruition. 

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