Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

War for the Planet of the Apes

Grade : A+ Year : 2017 Director : Matt Reeves Running Time : 2hr 20min Genre : , , ,
Movie review score

There’s much that I would like to start out this review of this third part of the new “Planet of the Apes” trilogy. The first thing to say, though, is that Andy Serkis should be an Oscar-winner by now. It’s important, for the continuation of the art form, for the Academy to realize that the performance-capture technology that Serkis has been the gold standard for since his first appearance as Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” is not about visual effects, but acting performance. It is arguable that with his third performance as Caesar in these “Apes” films that he should be on his way to his third Oscar, in fact, following “The Two Towers” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” This is perhaps his finest moment as a performer, however, and I’ll dig into it further as I look closer at the film, but it’s worth noting that Serkis is the star of these films, and he has been more than up to the challenge as Caesar.

I feel like it was meant to be that I would review this film after the bigotry-fueled events in Charlottesville, Virginia, because bigotry, genocide, and hate are prime motivators of the events in “War for the Planet of the Apes.” War has continued between the apes, led by Caesar, who just want to live in peace, and factions of humanity who managed to survive the plague of Simian Flu after the events in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Humans remain the instigators of violence in this franchise, but the biggest struggle in “War for the Planet of the Apes” is for the soul of Caesar, who had to kill one of his own, Koba, to get the fighting to stop in “Dawn.” Koba had just reasons for feeling the anger he did towards humans, though, as he had been tortured and abused before coming in contact with Caesar. The memory of Koba haunts the events of “War,” and apes who aligned with Koba are working with humans to locate Caesar, and Caesar finds himself struggling with his own dark side after a raid that results in the death of his wife and oldest son. That is the catalyst for the remainder of the film, as Caesar sends the apes to a (hopeful) sanctuary far away from humanity while he makes his way to the leader of the humans, The Colonel (played by Woody Harrelson), for vengeance. All the while, he has visions of Koba, and he is starting to understand that hatred for himself. The question is, will his humanity win out in the end?

If you’re getting visions of a simian-driven “Apocalypse Now” from that last paragraph, I have a feeling director Matt Reeves (who also directed “Dawn”) and his co-writer, Mark Bomback, intended it that way. Caesar is in the role of Willard, who will struggle with his own humanity as he travels to the heart of darkness in a desolate, imposing landscape to find his Kurtz, in this case, Harrelson’s The Colonel. This is not a hallucinatory trip into the hell of warfare, however, but a final test of Caesar in his ability to lead the apes, all the while trying to preach peace with the humans. The Colonel does not make it easy, and while the cinematic structure harkens to Coppola’s Vietnam masterpiece, the story has deeper roots in American history which make it such a powerful experience. In the three best original “Apes” films (the 1968 classic, “Escape From the Planet of the Apes,” and “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes”), there was an acute social commentary about the innate bigotry of mankind, its tendency towards violence, and echos of the Civil Rights Movement that changed the landscape of American culture at the time the films were made. Reeves brings that spirit back to the franchise with a vengeance, as bigotry, slavery and the slaughter of the American Indians are all echoed in this story about two leaders on a collision course that will alter human history for mankind. Similarly to “Apocalypse Now,” where Willard and Kurtz end up as two sides of the same coin, the same can be said for both Caesar and The Colonel. Both have had profound heartache and tragedy in their lives, during this conflict, that have led them to where they are now, and the scenes between Serkis and Harrelson are some of the most powerful in any movie this year, and certainly in this franchise. In a just world, they would be early favorites for Oscar appreciation, but I wouldn’t count on either being in the running come January, and that is a shame.

The story and writing are so strong in “War for the Planet of the Apes” that it’s almost easy to forget the continued excellence of the visual effects by WETA Digital in bringing the apes to life through performance-capture. These characters feel as real in terms of acting as the apes brought to life by John Chambers’s landmark makeup in the original franchise, and we get a sense of the emotional components of these characters in the way they interact- in particular, Maurice and Bad Ape (a new character played by Steve Zahn), bring further elements of humanity and conscious to the story, especially when Caesar and his band searching for The Colonel take in a young, mute girl (Amiah Miller) at a deserted encampment whom they come to care for deeply. Adding to the film’s emotional pull is the score by Michael Giacchino that pays tribute to the experimental nature of Jerry Goldsmith’s original work for the first film, but also feels like a shout out to the work of Ennio Morricone in some of its more haunting passages, as well. In a summer where Hollywood’s franchises have sometimes felt stale and overwrought, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is an artistic highpoint for imaginative franchise continuation, or in this case, conclusion. Few franchises have left you with a more powerful evocation of its message as this one does in its final images. Even “Logan” hasn’t done it better this year, and that film set a high bar.

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