Monday, November 13, 2017

"War for the Planet of the Apes": review

I've developed a very healthy respect for director Matt Reeves, especially once I realized that he had directed the latter two of the three rebooted "Planet of the Apes" films. Reeves (who also directed "Under Siege 2," "Cloverfield," and "10 Cloverfield Lane," and who will be directing Ben Affleck in the upcoming "The Batman") has pulled off the trick of directing two movies of similarly high quality—both with different casts, plots, tones, and themes—and he has somehow managed to keep the third movie in the series from falling prey to the usual third-movie curse of being the worst in the bunch. "War for the Planet of the Apes" is easily a match for its two predecessors; maintaining such quality is a feat worthy of early-2000s Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, and Gabriel Chavarria, "War for the Planet of the Apes" is less about a war and more about the chimpanzee Caesar's attempt to lead his fellow apes, Moses-like, to a promised land without getting everyone killed. The film very early on reveals where its sympathies lie, and it's not with the evil, genocidal humans. The only human who is an exception is little Nova (Miller), a girl who has caught a mutated version of the pandemic virus that had wiped out of most of humanity in the first film, and who cannot speak, although she does learn to use the sign language that many of the apes use.

The film's basic plot is quite simple: a contingent of renegade US Army soldiers led by the Colonel (Harrelson) has been tracking Caesar. Caesar, meanwhile, gets word from patrols that there exists a place beyond a desert where the apes can live in peace, away from humanity. Some soldiers lose a skirmish after having tracked down Caesar's forces, and Caesar mercifully sends the few survivors back to the Colonel with the message that, if the soldiers desist and leave the forests, the killing can stop. The Colonel responds by finding and infiltrating Caesar's current hideout, then by personally slaughtering Caesar's wife and eldest son.

Torn between his desire for vengeance and his need to guide the apes to a safer haven, Caesar sends the apes out toward the promised land while he and a small detachment of apes go hunt the Colonel. Caesar discovers the Colonel's stronghold, and to his horror, he sees that his entire tribe of apes has been captured and put to work building a wall that is meant to stop the attack of another human military division that has come to capture the Colonel. The reason for this can't be explained without leading us into major spoiler territory, so I'll leave off here.

Even though "War" is short on actual war, it does a superb job with characterization. Andy Serkis, who famously mo-capped Gollum for several of Peter Jackson's movies, does stellar work as Caesar. This isn't Serkis's first time in a primate role: you may recall that he mo-capped Kong in Peter Jackson's "King Kong" (2005). The ape effects, in general, are excellently realized, to the point where you, as the viewer, simply take for granted that you're watching intelligent apes. Steve Zahn also deserves praise for his comic portrayal of Bad Ape, a wily chimpanzee who can speak, but who doesn't know any ape-sign. Waifish Amiah Miller, meanwhile, does a fine job as a child actress, reminding me of no one so much as a combination of a very young Dakota Fanning and Amanda Seyfried. Woody Harrelson's Colonel radiates equal amounts of menace and pathos.

While the acting is unquestionably good, the plot does contain flaws. The Moses imagery is laid on a bit thick, for example, and if you know the biblical story, then you can predict how things are going to end for Caesar when the tribe finally reaches the outskirts of the promised land. The other major story problems are (1) the effects of the mutated virus aren't explained all that well, and (2) the story we see feels fairly parochial; it would have been interesting to get a glimpse of how the human-ape conflict was playing out in the rest of the world.

But the central drama unfolds well enough—the conflict between Caesar and the Colonel is what drives much of the film, and for Caesar, the risk is that he will turn into another Koba (the evil ape from the previous movies—and you might recall that "Koba" was a nickname for Josef Stalin). The movie traffics in deep themes and evokes plenty of other stories in both literature and film: "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Apocalypse Now," parts of the Jesus narrative, and even "War of the Worlds." All in all, I think Matt Reeves's three films are a worthy reboot of the cinematic story we got in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While not absolutely perfect in terms of storytelling, all three films showcase fine acting and character development, and they don't shy away from heavy themes like the self-destructive nature of human hubris and the question of what it means to be truly civilized. If you've seen the first two of Reeves's films, I recommend this one, which works as both the capstone to a three-part tale and as the possible launching point for another sequel.

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