War for the Planet of the Apes

War-for-the-Planet-of-the-A War for the Planet of the Apes  (2017)    20th Century Fox/Sci-Fi-Action-Adventure    RT: 140 minutes    Rated PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi action and violence, thematic elements, disturbing images)    Director: Matt Reeves    Screenplay: Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves    Music: Michael Giacchino    Cinematography: Michael Seresin    Release date: July 14, 2017 (US)    Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Devyn Dalton, Aleks Paunovic, Alessandro Juliani.

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 Things are finally starting to look up for the current summer movie season and to that, I say this: “It’s about time!” After a weak first half (with a few notable exceptions), Hollywood is stepping up their game with some movies worth going to see. The latest is War for the Planet of the Apes, the third entry in a franchise that has yet to disappoint. I’m talking, of course, about the newer POTA movies which have nothing to do with the original five from 40-odd years ago or Tim Burton’s misconceived attempt at a remake from 2001. I bring this up because I think it’s important to point out that the newer POTA movies, which started with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011 and continued with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014, are NOT technically remakes. I like to think of the series as a “re-imagining”. I realize this a term used too frequently by studio spin doctors but in the case of POTA, it actually applies. As for War for the Planet of the Apes, it’s the best one yet.

 war for planet of apesRight off the bat, War for the Planet of the Apes pays homage to war films (as per its title) by showing a platoon of human soldiers marching through the woods towards the stronghold where ape leader Caesar (Seputsrkis, the LOTR movies) and his followers are trying to live in peace. After a short battle, Caesar decides to spare the men’s lives and sends them back to their leader with an offer of peace as long as they’re left alone. Fearing what will happen if they stay put, Caesar decides it’s best if they relocate to a new home across the desert. The night before their departure, the humans return, along with their leader “The Colonel” (Harrelson, Natural Born Killers), and launch an attack that results in the deaths of Caesar’s wife and eldest son at the Colonel’s hands. After sending the others on their way, Caesar sets out to find the Colonel and exact revenge for the murders of his loved ones.

 Caesar, who’s still haunted by former lieutenant Koba’s betrayal in the previous movie, is joined on his mission by three other apes- adviser Maurice (Konoval), Luca (Adamthwaite) and Rocket (Notary). Along the way, they pick up a human companion, a young mute girl (Miller, Lights Out), as well as Bad Ape (Zahn, Captain Fantastic), a hermit who directs them to a facility on the border where the Colonel and his men are waiting to join forces with another human army. At least that’s the presumption. It’s made clear early on that the Colonel is unhinged. Not only does he kill apes, he also kills his own men. Something is making him paranoid but what?

 The title promises a war and that’s exactly what you get. Boy, is it ever a doozy! It takes a while to get to it but it’s totally worth the wait. Besides, unlike other summer blockbusters, War for the Planet of the Apes never feels padded or prolonged. It’s not a test of endurance sitting through it. It’s consistently entertaining. It references classic war films like The Great Escape and Apocalypse Now with its Kurtz-like antagonist deep into heart-of-darkness territory. There’s even graffiti that reads “Ape-pocalypse Now”. It also pays homage to westerns, The Searchers in particular. It has a band of heroes on horseback riding right into the heart of danger. Sure, they’re apes but it’s the same idea. The battle scenes are well-mounted and thrilling. Of the many right moves made by director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the POTA), one of the smartest is not overediting said scenes to the point of confusion.

 I think they should create a special Oscar for Best Motion-Capture Performance for the great work Serkis puts into his role as Caesar in War for the Planet of the Apes. It can’t be easy delivering a performance in such a way but the actor previously known as Gollum in the LOTR trilogy does a remarkable job. Harrelson chews up the scenery very nicely as the Colonel. More than once, I wondered if he received tips from Nicolas Cage on how to convincingly act bat-crap crazy. Young Amiah Miller is a star in the making, something we learned from last year’s effective little shocker Lights Out. There’s a reason why she and a few other characters can’t speak but I’ll let you find out for yourself. As for Zahn, he does well but I’m concerned that Bad Ape will be this franchise’s answer to Jar Jar Binks. He comes close on more than one occasion.

 I’m not a fan of CGI, you all know that, but the effects in War for the Planet of the Apes are very good. That’s because the makers incorporate a lot of motion-capture into the scenes involving apes, a good thing since the movie is told entirely from their perspective. By the end, you’ll believe an ape can talk. The score by Michael Giacchino evokes those of 70s and 80s summer blockbuster movies. It definitely heightens the excitement factor as any effective score should. The cinematography by Michael Seresin is awesome in the way it emphasizes the beauty of the natural world and contrasts it with the ugliness of human nature. Since much of War for the Planet of the Apes is silent (i.e. dialogue-free), the use of images and music takes on greater importance.

 I’ll also say this for War for the Planet of the Apes; it’s more intelligent than the usual summer blockbuster. Reeves and his co-writer Mark Bomback keep the narrative simple without dumbing it down. It’s not an insult to the viewer’s intelligence like the latest Transformers crapfest. It doesn’t assault the sense with a lot of unnecessary noise. It still has plenty of action though. It does end on a rather sad note which leaves me to wonder if we’ll see a fourth POTA movie. If we do, great. I’d welcome it. If not, then I can’t think of a better way to end the series. If that proves to be the case (and I hope it doesn’t), War for the Planet of the Apes is the proverbial high note. 

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