War for the Planet of the Apes

So here’s a franchise I never thought I’d be into…yet here we are.

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War for the Planet of the Apes
Director: Matt Reeves
Writers: Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback
Stars: Andy Serkis and some other people
Soundtrack Composer: Michael Giacchino
Rated PG-13

When the movie begins, the war that started in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is still raging. Caesar, our charismatic ape leader, and his people are being hunted by an army of humans led by a slightly insane man called The Colonel. After a particularly fierce battle, The Colonel finds Caesar’s hiding place, and, well…let’s just say things get personal. While most of the apes head out to find a home far from the redwood forest and its human inhabitants, Caesar teams up with three of his oldest companions and sets out on a quest for vengeance. Along the way, they pick up an adorable human girl who happens to be mute, and another ape who has learned to speak, despite not belonging to our original band of escaped lab rats. But as the group gets closer to his goal, Caesar finds himself as much at war with his inner demons as with the humans.

Man, how did I get sucked into this trilogy? When Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out, I hadn’t seen any of the previous Apes movies. (Still haven’t.) I thought the name sounded stupid. (Too many “ofs.”) And generally speaking, anytime a monkey or an ape shows up in a story, I start taking things a little less seriously. But I watched the movie at a friend’s house after it came out on DVD, and it wasn’t half bad. Then I had to review the second movie for a college project, and that one wasn’t half bad either. So when the third one came out, I thought, “Why not?” and went to see it on opening night.

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Guess I’m a sucker for apes on horses or something.

There are a couple things in this movie that particularly stood out to me throughout the whole viewing experience. One is the music. Now I know why Michael Giacchino’s Spider-Man score was so underwhelming: he was saving all his talent and skill for this movie! This film relies on music every bit as much as dialogue and cinematography to tell its story, so it’s a good thing the soundtrack is so thick with atmosphere, suspense, and emotion. There are many scenes that would have been just okay on their own, but with the soundtrack, they become masterpieces. Whether it’s  a minimalistic drumbeat or a majestic choral piece, the music is always perfectly suited to what’s going on in the story. At times it reminded me of the feeling I get when listening to an early John Williams score. That’s how good it was.

Secondly, I’ve always been impressed by these movies’ ability to create believable human emotions in characters that are both fully digital and, well, very much not human. This movie does it again...but even more so. There were many times when I completely forgot I was watching CGI apes. Their performances just seem so real, thanks to a combination of great acting and freaking miraculous animation. And in this movie, those performances get to take centre stage. My biggest problem with Dawn was that it spent a lot of time on bland, uninteresting human characters, when I only cared about the apes. This movie fixes that problem by focusing almost exclusively on its simian characters. There are really only two humans with any significance to the plot: the young girl and The Colonel. And they’re both quite interesting, actually, so I didn’t even mind the few scenes that focus on them.

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She’s too cute! I can’t stand it!

The apes are still the most interesting, though. Maurice the orangutan is awesome as always, and the new member of the crew, Bad Ape, provides some much-needed comic relief in what is often a very dark film.

But can I just talk for a second about how amazing Andy Serkis is? Yes, the animators deserve a lot of credit for putting his facial expressions and body language onto Caesar, but he’s the one who had to make those facial expressions in the first place. He inhabits the role with so much power and pent-up emotion, and then every once in a while, he EXPLODES and it’s beautiful to see. Over the course of three movies, he really has created an iconic character in Caesar, right up there with his work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. As good as certain other elements are, his acting is the heart and soul of this whole trilogy. The man is great at what he does, and if there were any justice in the world, he’d have at least two or three Oscar nominations under his belt by now.

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I know, dude. It’s messed up.

So the movie has a lot going for it, production-wise, and that’s a mighty good thing, because this is a story about talking apes that asks its audience to take it 100 percent seriously. It is a bleak, tragic film about a post-apocalyptic war that occasionally delves into heavy philosophical territory. And it’s about apes. Who, I kid you not, fling poo at one point. If anything–the acting, the special effects, the writing–had gone the slightest bit wrong, this movie would have become a farce.

But fortunately, almost nothing seems to have gone wrong on the production side, so I can actually identify with things like Caesar’s desire for revenge, and his fear that he’s becoming more like his old enemy, Koba. Like in the previous movies, the toxic cycle of fear and hatred comes up a lot. In addition to the usual prejudice between humans and apes, we also see both apes and humans betraying each other out of fear, and Caesar finds his own hatred driving him to do more morally questionable things. And as it becomes clear that the apes are getting even smarter and humans are starting to regress, some questions come up about what really makes them different from one another. Speech? Culture? Violence? Or does it not even matter? Does the amount of mercy and compassion you’re capable of showing matter more than the amount of body hair you’ve got?

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“SO EMOTIONAL!”

There’s a lot of religious symbolism in this movie, which surprised me for some reason. It’s pretty common for post-apocalyptic stories to feature vaguely Christian-sounding cults with insane leaders, and sure enough, the villain in this movie has delusions of God-hood. Since the other two movies didn’t show any tendencies in that direction, I guess I wasn’t expecting it here, but I didn’t necessarily mind it. It’s not usually too heavy-handed, and it does set up a nice contrast between the villain, with his twisted ideas of what sacrifice for the greater good looks like, and Caesar, who knows more about what it really means. There were also a few times when I was vaguely reminded of certain current events (the building of a wall becomes a plot point in the second half) but fortunately, it never felt like the movie was trying to push a political message. It’s much too subtle for that. Very few things are spelled out for the audience.

Overall, what we have here is a well-made, often moving, always gorgeous film that is well worth watching and discussing. It’s the best movie in the trilogy, and it’s the best movie about apes I’ve ever seen. And Andy Serkis is just the best.

Grade: A for “APES! TOGETHER! STRONG!”

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