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Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes shows us how blockbuster can be emotional story-telling
Aisle Seat, Rob Slack

War for the Planet of the Apes

Directed by Matt Reeves

In Theatres

War for the Planet of the Apes is the ninth film inspired by Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel Planet of the Apes. And, yes, that includes Tim Burton's 2001 Planet of the Apes, a film so bad that it sits below even 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes as the worst thing to ever feature people dressed as chimps. Want to win a round of trivia? Tim Roth turned down the role of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series to be in Tim Burton's crime against film. Yep, that happened. So, we have nine films, a live-action TV series and an animated series, a Simpsons parody musical, a closet full of comic books and novelizations and spin offs and toys and lunch boxes. Pretty good for a really weird French science fiction novel.

And if we're placing 2001's atrocity in a corner in the basement where it will be forgotten and never spoken of again, where should we place this new film? Where does it sit in a film franchise that has seen masterpieces, the bizarre and the surreal, heartbreak and time travel and an ape riot in downtown Los Angeles? For my money, I'd place War for the Planet of the Apes on the same shelf as the last two in this reboot series, high above Conquest and Battle. Rise, Dawn, and now War have shown us how franchise can be art, how blockbuster can be emotional story telling. The three films work as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. With War's conclusion we either have the conclusion of a trilogy or the jumping off point for an entire new series. One that still ends two thousand years in the future with Charleston Heston and team crash landing on a planet where everything they know has been turned upside down. 

It's difficult to put into words what these new films have achieved. Like the original 1968 film, they are marvels of special effects, transcending what everyone else is able to achieve with their ones and zeros. Where the original took what was thought possible with make-up and prosthetics and shook up the entertainment world, these new films take what we thought was possible with motion capture and is shaking everything up. John Chambers was given an honorary Oscar for his make-up effects. Maybe we will soon see an Oscar acting nomination for Andy Serkis, Terry Notary, or Karin Konoval. Their work is the heart and soul of this film, of these three films. 

Someone much smarter than me noted that the bridge over the uncanny valley is Caesar's eyes. They are so lifelike, so believable. We see heartache, rage, mercy. We see worry and regret, hopelessness and hope. War for the Planet of the Apes is Andy Serkis' highest acheivement so far. Over the course of these films we may feel like we know his Caesar, but he is still able to surprise us. His subtlety, his minimalism, the way his shoulders hunch a little or a glance or an almost imperceptible change in expression, in body language, tells much more than ten pages of dialogue could have. For a film with so little spoken dialogue communication War is unusually expressive. We know so much by the end if we just pay attention. Put your phone down when you're watching this one or your questions will result in you being endlessly mocked. 

But most of acting is reacting, and so any lead will need a strong supporting cast. And even though the cast of War is mostly digital creations built off of motion capture, the supporting cast is among the strongest of any blockbuster. Terry Notary as Rocket and Karin Konoval as Maurice, Caesar's closest lieutenants, the ones who have been with him since Rise, since the beginning, are the beating heart of the film. They are fully developed, fully realized characters. Rocket who follows Caesar unquestioningly, Maurice, his conscience who will always pull him back from the brink of complete darkness. The motion captured performances are beyond anything seen in film today, these actors are taking their art to a level that can't be ignored. As a friend of mine said recently, we are witnessing a revolution in acting on par with the advent of method acting. A line can be drawn across the history of film, before Montgomery Clift and after. I believe we are witnessing a new revolution playing out in the multiplex, before Andy Serkis and after. 

Anyway, you're probably asking, is War for the Planet of the Apes any good, is it worth my money? Buddy, you've written a metric tonne of words and haven't said anything about, you know, the movie. 

And, yes, yes it is. War is an unusual film, part war movie, part Western. The humans in the story fighting an enemy they don't understand are playing out their Vietnam story. The Vietnam allusions aren't very subtle, not very subtle indeed. Woody Harrelson plays the leader of the humans, known only as The Colonel. Mr. Harrelson brings his best Brando to the role of a man who has not just looked into the heart of darkness but took up residence there. The humans follow his lead blindly, his cult of personality has them convinced of their superiority. The apes, however, are playing out a western. Caesar and his small group head off from the larger population, seeking answers and revenge. On horseback, guns at the ready, adopting stragglers, be they a young mute girl or the only survivor of the Sierra Zoo, an ape named Bad Ape played by Steve Zahn, their story wouldn't be out of place in a John Ford film. Except, you know, the ape part. Between this and Logan, 2017 has been a great year for the mutant Western. I hope this continues. 

The two conflicting themes shouldn't work together, a western and a war film. The audience should get whiplash with the contrasting and conflicting themes. But, somehow, against all odds, War works. I couldn't tell you why or how, but it works. So much of the film is with the apes that when whatever remnants of human civilization appear in the movie we are allowed to fill in our own details, to create our own back story. The filmmakers trust their audience, know that we don't need to be spoon-fed, that we really don't need exposition to fill in the empty spaces. We've been well versed in enough apocalyptic fiction, we don't need to go to that class again. 

Steve Zahn's Bad Ape is the much needed comic relief this story required. Without him the darkness of the story would have overwhelmed any entertainment out of the movie. We aren't living in the days of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, we need some relief from the darkness or we'll just find another blockbuster to spend our monies on. No longer can the hero of the story end all life on the planet. I mean, he can. But don't expect much of out of your weekend box office receipts. Damn, the 70s were odd.