Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Film Review: War for the Planet Apes

Sexuality/Nudity No Objection 
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

War for the Planet of the Apes is a very good film that is engaging and exciting.  But it isn't really a war movie.

Director Matt Reeves has created an epic trilogy for which he should be very proud.  He has taken us on the journey of Caesar (the amazing Andy Serkis) from his beginning the ape revolution in Rise of the Planet of the Apes through his troubled leadership of his tribe in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes through to this finale in War for the Planet of the Apes.

The story begins five years after Dawn and fifteen after Rise.  A cult-like human Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who is leading his outpost of humans against Caesar's apes in the Redwoods.  After a devestating surgical strike on his home, Caesar pursues revenge accompanied by fellow chimp Rocket (Terry Notary), gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and his wise counselor orangutang Maurice (Karin Konoval).  Along their perilous journey they encounter two more characters that shed light on the world-wide impact of the simian flu virus.  The first is Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a chimp from a zoo who became intelligent as the virus spread.  The other is Nova (Amiah Miller), a mute child who appears to have mentally deteriorated into simplicity because of the mutation of the disease.  Together, these six form a unlikely bond as they forge ahead to the Colonel's base where Caesar finds more than he bargained for.  I do not want to go any further with the plot so as to not spoil some of the twists.

Reeves weaves a tale that is intricate, complicated, and emotionally complex.  The film is about the intelligent apes attempting to take their ascendancy as the dominant species.  The Colonel sees this as a holy war and that history hinges on which side wins.  In that sense, he is correct, but it is hard to root against your own species.  And yet the apes are undoubtedly persons who are want a chance at the freedoms that all persons have.

The biggest detriment that this movie has is that the second film, Dawn, was superior to this one.  With the exception of one human character in the last film, all of the men and apes were fully realized, three-dimensional characters.  You could completely understand, if not empathize, with every side of the conflict.  The problem with War is that it doesn't use that same care with the antagonistic humans.  The Colonel is made after the mold of Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now.  The character design, the performance, and the way he is filmed make this homage unmistakeable.  The Colonel is insane and filled with religious zealotry in his war.  And even though they give him a tragic backstory, you can never get behind him because of his cruelty.  In Dawn, I agonized for the humans and their desire for survival alongside the apes.  Because of the Colonel, that wonderful contradiction of emotion is absent from War.

As a Catholic I found the villain's religiosity a bit annoying, but I did not think it too overdone.  I'm not one that says a movie needs balance in its point of view and there have been people throughout history who have used God to glorify their fight rather than fight to glorify God.

And yet the Christological imagery in relation to Caesar is unmistakeable.  He is the leader and savior of the apes.  Their salvation rests on him.  That is not to say that he is a Christ-figure.  In fact, the whole movie is ultimately about Caesar's struggle with his own darkness.  He is always in danger of become like the evil Koba (Toby Kebbel), the ape who started the war.  And you feel the pull towards the darkness.  Caesar attempts to be rational and merciful.  But in this fallen world, mercy can have a horrible cost.  The question is whether or not the cost of a cruel soul is better or worse.  Caesar struggles with this the entire film and the outcome is always in question.

Some could read a very strong anti-human philosophy in this story.  And to be sure, the original Apes series from the 1960's had a strong nihilistic streak in it.  But once you accept that the apes are persons who share the defining trait of humanity being rational animals, then the focus becomes not apes vs. humans but on the apes will embrace moral good or moral evil.

This movie has some excellent motion-capture performances, Serkis most of all.  Every time he is on screen, Sirkis gives one of the most charismatic and tragic performances I've seen in a sci-fi character.  Zahn's Bad Ape came close to becoming a complete Jar Jar, but the character never crosses the silliness line.  Miller's Nova is heartbreakingly endearing in every scene she is in.  You can understand how she melts the hardened, frozen hearts of the apes.  Harrelson's Colonel is my least favorite performance in the film.  He does a fair job with character as written, but crazy on screen usually means that depth is lost.  You have to be horribly charismatic to make crazy engaging like Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter or Heath Ledger's Joker.  Harrelson doesn't quite make that level.

As I said earlier, the movie isn't really a war movie.  There is a good deal of violence and fighting, but there was actually a lot more action in the second film.  This movie feels more like a revenge Western and prison escape film.  In all honesty, it would have made much more sense to call the last film War for the Planet of the Apes and this current one Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

My general feeling on trilogies is that the third film has to be the best.  If it does not, it leads to an inescapable sense of dissatisfaction.  If the third film is very good, but not the best, the dissatisfaction can be lessened but never abolished.  Unfortunately, the second film in this series is better than this film.

But Reeves has still given us a film worth watching and a fitting send off to Caesar's story.  He knows how to use the CGI technology to enhance the emotion and drama of the story rather than detract, and that is a rare thing in the blockbuster.  His minimalistic dialogue means that he has to tell the movie primarily with the visuals, which he does incredibly well.  His use of Michael Giacchino is superb and used for maximum effect.  In terms of story, he has wisely built the bonds to characters we have come to know over the last two film so that we are desperate for them to have a happy ending and our hearts break if any of them meet tragic ends.

My care for them was strong that I was actually saying to myself during a moment of peril for the main character, "Come on, Caesar!"  I yearned for Caesar to come out on top both in soul and in fact.  I will not say if he succeeds.  But Reeves and Sirkis deserve a great deal of credit for creating one of the greatest, if not the greatest, motion capture character of all time.

And for that I say: Hail, Caesar!

4 out of 5 stars.

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