Friday, July 14, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes movie review.

As someone who never considered himself a fan of the Planet of the Apes series, the newly rebooted franchise following Caesar and his clan's rise to power and freedom has made for some of my favorite blockbusters of this decade. Starting with Rise, the series decided to shift focus from the humans onto the apes, creating a rousing, and well-built origin story that made the most of their primate cast and motion-capture, even if it meant the humans were generally boring.

Cut to Dawn, when the film went even more ambitious and brutal, managing to make these "Animals" feel  human, delivering on blockbuster excitement without sacrificing mood or character, even making the humans better defined in the meantime. Of course, both movies featured beautiful, lifelike motion-capture from Weta Digital, and outstanding central performances from Andy Serkis. Now with Dawn's seeds sewn for all out war between humans and apes, we join the clan once more for a no less suspenseful, rich, and poignant closer to the new trilogy.

Fifteen years since the initial outbreak, the raging conflict between apes and humans have steadily grown more vile, as military soldiers attempt to take down the colony led by Caesar (Andy Serkis). With their eyes set on a new home away from the chaos and bloodshed, Caesar ultimately breaks away to track down the human Colonel (Woody Harrelson), and settle his personal stakes. Joined by faithful companions, and a mute girl (Amiah Miller), Caesar eventually locates the base, and a massive collection of primate prisoners, on a path that will settle the conflict between man and beast.

I use the term blockbuster when describing War for the Planet of the Apes very loosely, because despite the big budget effects and the epic scale, the titular War is less of the epic Saving Private Ryan nature, and more in the vein of a holocaust film. Much of the themes of the film center around those thinly veiled allusions to Nazism and cleansing, swapping out race with species, with the humans taking prisoners as their own personal work force, as well as brutes in battle, branding them with specially designed symbols, and given derogatory nicknames like "Donkey". Because of this, the film often prefers to present its thrills and intensity less through action, and more on suspense and escalating tension. If Rise was about the right to live, and Dawn was about peace crumbling under fear, War is focused squarely on survival. With peace having evaporated at the hands of Toby Kebbell's Koba, the rationality and compassion that is part of Caesar's nature has proven as much a vice as a virtue, a thankless trait that means little in this world without forgiveness, requiring more stealthy plans in order to ensure the safety of the apes, as the tensions grow increasingly worse.

In fact, this Neo-Nazi representation of the human side still proves just as applicable to modern, recent developments in the political spectrum, and the conflict between apes and humans could be very much representative as any groups of humans versus another, as one or both sides refuse to see eye to eye with each other. But just as well it also continues to expand on the trilogy's ongoing theme of man vs nature, in which we've only finally become one with the wilds of the earth when we've embraced our own primitive savagery. But not merely by violence, mind you, as even some of those humans lucky enough to be unharmed by the ALZ virus are beginning to lose their ability to speak, here embodied by the innocence of newcomer Amiah Miller's mute traveling companion, who comes along to bless the movie with much needed heart and wonderment, counteracting the aggression and brutality of the soldiers, led by a cruel and morally gray Woody Harrelson as their Colonel.

But the mutism of Miller also works to further expand on another of the trilogy's recurring themes, and a huge asset to the many motion-capture performers, that of language barriers dividing us. Dawn made an especially bold move in showcasing the dialogue between the apes in sign language with subtitles, with War continuing to utilize that same minimalist style, relying on a level of physicality and projection that shows faith in the audience's ability to keep up, and shows especially vital adherence to emotional expression.

Andy Serkis has practically turned motion-capture into an artform at this point, blessing us with some of the greatest and most iconic digital characters in modern cinema, and here his commitment is no less compelling. Of course, much thanks to this - as always - is certainly owed to the breathtaking realism and stunning work of Joe Letteri's team from Weta Digital, but without the right physical performer in the suit, I doubt this character would have come to life as well as it did. Even underneath the sensors and the digital tools, the staggering level of emotion that seethes through his face is heart-rending. So much fear, love, terror, and pure hatred manages to shine through, creating a deeply broken, feeling, and conflicted chimp as he comes to grips with his moral compass, blending the line between computer and performer so well that after a while, one simply buys into the illusion that these are living, breathing, soulful animals. To say that this is the best performance of Serkis' career is no faint praise, and I'd be willing to go so far as to name it one of my favorite performances of the decade. Of course, none of that is to undersell his fellow simian counterparts, including franchise first-timer Steve Zahn as reluctant ally "Bad Ape", providing some of the only (mostly welcome) humor in an otherwise bleak movie.

Matt Reeves has simply outdone himself in directing prowess, a superb talent at building character and familial bonds, has also grown in his painstaking and beautiful perfectionism with his craft. Outside of the always stellar apes CGI (and believe me, stellar is selling this way too short), his ability with visual storytelling is truly to be envied, DP Michael Seresin evoking beautiful imagery of the wild and snowy perils in a way recalling Apocalypse Now, and allowing the film to establish powerful feelings of dread and heartbreak. If long, the film is quite deliberate and wise in how it stretches its time out, and I can honestly say at no point did this movie ever bore me. But the film also sounds fantastic, boasting the usual top of the line sound design, and more beautiful musical accompaniment by Michael Giacchino.

Maybe the film receives follow-ups, maybe it doesn't. But if this is truly to be the end of the new Apes - and I really hope it is, then I sincerely couldn't ask for a more perfect send-off than the ending of War, giving the trilogy the closure and the emotional grandeur that it deserves, and has richly earned thanks to those unforgettable character bonds. Against any and all odds stacked against it, the Planet of the Apes reboot rose above the worn and campy nature of its source and inspirations, taking those basic outlines, and modifying them into some of the most thoughtful and affecting big budget releases of the decade, unafraid to take bold new risks at a time when it feels like studios prefer to play it safe. As summer flicks go, this is one atypical, powerful experience that reminds you of how good blockbuster filmmaking can be.

****1/2 / *****

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