Friday, July 13, 2012

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) (Movie Review)

    Following the high marks of not just one, but two critically acclaimed films in a franchise is no easy task, but somehow 2017’s “War for the Planet of the Apes” escaped the curse of the mediocre third installment and became yet another smash hit for the series. It’s been widely regarded by both fans and critics as the best of the new Ape trilogy, and possibly the first in the franchise to truly match the original 1968 classic. Weather this film surpasses the original “Planet of the Apes” can certainly be debated, but one thing that can’t be argued is that the two-thousand-teens Ape series completely surpasses the first Ape film series of the 1970’s by a mile. 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” brought the series back to form, 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” went the extra mile, and now 2017’s "War for the Planet of the Apes" brings everything together with great finality. This really is one of those rare perfect film trilogies where every film is consistently good, and there’s a solid beginning, middle and end to the story. While I personally still like “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” the most, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is undeniably a worthy sequel and can be labeled as one of the better installments in the Ape legacy.

     One little detail I loved right off the bat was that in the opening, the 20th Century Fox logo was colorfully set to drum-beats from the film. We then get texts that recap the state of events from the past two films, how they lead into “War”, and the text themselves colorfully highlight the titles of each instalment, which may be corny, but I love it. Basically, when the Simien Flu first broke out, it killed off most humans, and increased intelligence in the apes. Now, following an attack lead by the evil ape Koba, military forces are retaliating with magnum force. While Caesar, ruler of the apes succeeded in defeating Koba, he couldn’t stop the war from ragging between his kind and the remaining humans who aim the re-concur the planet. After a surprise attack from a rouge human colonel, both Caesar’s son and wife are tragically killed, which lead Caesar on a new quest to seek revenge against their killer. Over time, Caesar becomes more heartless, his ape followers fear that he’s becoming just like Koba, and Caesar himself begins having ghostly visions of Koba coming to him. As their journey continues, the apes find an orphaned little girl who’s mysteriously lost her ability to speak. It’s soon revealed that the Simien Flu has now mutated and is de-humanizing all the people, to the point where they can no longer remember how to talk. This turn of events only makes the humans all the more desperate to wipe out the apes, leaving Caesar with an ethical debate to either pursue vengeance, or lead the other apes to freedom from their oppressors.

      For the first hour and a half I was absolutely in love with this film. I said in my last review of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” that I’d be happy watching a film focusing solely on these apes, with no human characters at all, because the apes themselves are just so much more fascinating to watch. In this sequel, that’s mostly the case because all the attention is on Caesar, his ape followers and their journey. In fact, the mute girl is really the only human hero of the whole film. Once again, I loved being with these ape characters, I loved their separate community, I loved their interactions, which are mostly told through visuals and little dialogue. I love the individual personalities of these different ape characters, I love the body language, and they can surprisingly convey a lot of real human emotion. The motion capture effects for these apes are easily the best of these films thus far. They look stunning, with excellent detail, and even though I knew they were creatures crafted in a computer, they just felt so real. Andy Serkis makes his third and final appearance as Caesar, and he once again kicks it out of the park. Obviously, he’ll never win an Oscar for his work, but he really should, as there’s so much more to this performance than simply his motion captured body movement. His inflections, and his tone of voice carry so much wait that he just commands the screen with a real presence.

     The other ape performances deserve a lot of credit too, and many stand apart as memorable characters in their own way. I’ve always loved the orangutan named Maurice, as he’s been the gentle soul of the group, Caesars closest friend and the only other character to appear (at least physically) in all three films. I especially love the sound design for Maurice, which is just the gentlest deep ape sound I’ve ever heard. This film introduces us to a new ape character named Bad Ape, and basically he’s in this film just for comedic relief. This character could have stood out as an announce, but he’s so unavoidably lovable that he makes for a mostly welcomed presence in an otherwise depressing war drama. At last we have the little mute girl named Nova, which is a call back to the grown mute woman from the original classic. Personally, it felt like unneeded fan serves to give this child the exact same name as the original female lead, but putting that aside, I absolutely loved the inclusion of this character. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something touching about seeing these war hungry apes take this little girl in as one of their own and form their own distinct connections with her. Honestly, some of my favorite moments in the whole film are the little moments between this girl and the different ape characters. They have cute moments, sad moments, touching moments and they give the film this warm aura that I never felt in any of the previous movies.

      Now I should note that for a movie titled “War for the Planet of the Apes”, there is actually very little “War” on display. Honestly, I think this film has less action sequences then the five previous ape’s movies, which really isn’t a problem, so long as the movie is good. It's just that War doesn’t really fit with the title at all. There’s a thrilling battle sequence at the beginning of the movie, which sets the tone, but then all the other action is pushed to the background. This was a very bold move focusing more on characters, internal drama, emotional highlights and for the most part it pays off. Like I said, I loved the first hour and a half of this movie, but then things change once we segue into the films final act. The movie doesn’t exactly go downhill, and it’s by no means bad, it’s just that from this point on I was no longer loving the experience the way I initially was. At this point in the film, Caesar along with the majority of his apes are taken prisoner by the military, and become slaves forced to make a giant wall. This is also where the rogue Colonel played by Woody Harrelson takes center stage as a main character. While the performance is solid, I can’t help but feel that there’s a deeper laired antagonist that’s buried under a cliched, tough soldier stereotype.

     It’s hard to describe, but there’s something lifeless about this prison camp setting. Before hand, I felt like I was going on a journey with these fascinating characters, I was seeing things explained though visuals and it just felt like we were building to something special. All that changes at the camp, as things are now explained in long winded dialog scenes, the characters aren’t really being developed, and the film no longer feels like it’s building, instead it’s just in limbo. Also, when compared to the previous two films in this trilogy, I felt that both “Rise” and “Dawn” had their own distinct identities that felt different from anything else I’d experienced on film. “War” certainly begins with a unique identity, as it focuses solely on the ape characters, but this camp setting robbed the film of its uniqueness. Now it just felt like a hybrid of other films like “The Ten Commandments”, “Apocalypse Now”, “Schindler's List”, and “The Great Escape”. It’s also at this point that I felt the visual symbolism was getting a little too on the nose. There’s some heavy-handed slavery imagery, and obvious religious metaphors, most notably is Caesar being tied up to this post with his arms stretched out to resemble Jesus Christ on the cross.  

      At the end, the apes make their daring escape from the camp, but Caesar stays behind for one last confrontation with the Colonel. Upon visiting his courters, Caesar discovers that the Colonel has been infected by the Simien Flu, has lost the ability to speak, and in his last moments shoots himself in the head, which rob Caesar of his own personal vengeance. Then a second group of humans launch an attack on the camp, which could be regarded as the final battle, but it’s mostly a backdrop to the apes escaping the prison. There’s some apes allied with the humans, who up till this point have been enemies, but during the attack they aide Caesar at the coast of their own lives. At last, Caesar leads his clan of apes to the land of milk and honey, where they can begin anew. Unfortunately for Caesar, he suffered fatal wounds during the escape and quietly passes away, just as his followers reach safe haven. It’s another religious metaphor akin to Moses, who lead the slaves out of Egypt to the promised land, but due to his sins, he could not enter it himself.   

         Being completely honest, of the three new ape movies, I loved “War for the Planet of the Apes” the least, but it’s still a strong conclusion to the trilogy. The effects are more stunning then ever before, it leaves an emotional impact, and there’s even a poignant narrative to the conclusion of the story. I can’t imagine watching this film as frequently as the previous ape movies, but that’s just due to personal taste. I wasn’t too fond of the films final act, and I could have used a little more kick for a closing chapter, but the film still dose everything a final chapter should do. It brings finality to Caesar’s journey, and I think Fox should just stop with the apes films for some time. This was just the right way a series should close, and the trilogy as a whole was a perfect revitalization for a long dead franchise.

I give “War for the Planet of the Apes” 4 stars out of 5.      

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