War for the Planet of the Apes (****1/2) is cleverly reverential

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War for the Planet of the Apes – 2017

Director Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback and Reeves
Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Sara Cannning, Max Lloyd-Jones, Devy Dalton, Aleks Paunovic, Amiah Miller, Gabriel Chavarria

In the opening scenes of War for the Planet of the Apes, we get a true vision of horrible war. Bullets and spears hurtling through the air, humans and apes dying as if life is not as precious as one would expect at the end of an apocalypse. This is not what I wanted to see in a movie, even if it was an incredible sequence, with harrowing sounds and visuals.

Fortunately, the film takes a turn shortly after this. Instead, what we get is a study of character for Caesar (Serkis) and a small band of his clan members as they work their way towards protection of their way of life, mixed with a little revenge. The result is a crowning achievement in many aspects, and the third consecutive original story that manages to pay reverence to the original series without repeating itself or taking the easy path to redemption.

Why are the apes a target? Well, the flu that knocked out humanity 15 years ago is called the simian flu, if that is any indication. I suppose those who survived the first wave  and didn’t talk to Jason Clarke’s Malcom at the end of the last film might have the idea that the apes are not friends, or even just ambivalent to human kind. Unfortunately, those who remain have too much access to guns and ammo and not enough room for compassion or, it seems, critical thought.

The leader of one group of humans, The Colonel (Harrison) is a few cans short of a six-pack of compassion. He performs an atrocity that sends Caesar in an apoplectic quest for vengeance. We get elements of Outlaw Josey Wales, Bridge on the River Kwai and, most ineptly, Apocalypse Now in the story. Caesar finds himself a captive to his grief and anger and then more directly a captive to the Colonel and his band of fanatics.

The Colonel, like everyone in the story to this point, has suffered some significant losses. He allowed this to affect him and through his charisma, create a militaristic sub-group of humanity that is subjugating apes as slaves, branding them with names like Donkey. He is making them work to build up a war in apprehension of a coming conflict with another band of humans.

When Caesar comes across the reality of the situation, he is vexed as to whether he should seek revenge or help his kind escape the camp altogether when the plans become clear.

It is to the filmmakers credit that we get to see the effect that the decisions of Caesar and his group make have ramifications. If it were another time for Hollywood, we might see more happiness in the poetic symmetry. It is tempting to think that this is following a trend we’ve seen in movies lately, with Rogue One, Logan, etc. In this case one needs to take into account the trend that this series has taken has already been darker than most. The evolution seems to fit.

Along the way, Caesar and his crew pick up a few strays. One of them is a mute human girl, named Nova (Miller). Fans of the original series will make the connection. Her presence is a necessary one in the development of Ceasar. His mindset always seems to veer away from the wisdom of his closest friend, and Orangutan named Maurice (once more brilliantly portrayed by Konoval). He’s never so far away that he doesn’t let his wise friend bring the little one along.

More complex is the character of Bad Ape (Zahn), who steals his way into the group telling stories that have a tinge of idiocy and maybe a little insanity mixed in. His performance is engaging and layered due to some astounding effects and Zahn’s great voice work.

Another great holdover from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is Red. He’s one of the Ape lackeys here, used as muscle and to be demoralized by the humans. His general antagonism seems to come from a place of being out-of-place wherever he is by this point. His existence is a sad, hopeless and angry barometer for Caesar. In the contrast, we see how significant a character Ceasar is for the development of simian kind.

Special mention must be made for Serkis, who pushes his artistry to another level. We’ve seen the cycle of a great character from birth to where he is now and it has been a remarkable journey. Serkis’ eyes wears every step of this journey like a weary badge. It really is a remarkable achievement when one watches all three films in succession. I hope we’ve gotten to the point in recognizing real acting when we can take what we’ve gotten from this remarkable actor, not only vocally, but through his recorded movements and those incredible eyes.

My personal favorite is still Maurice, though. Through it all, Konoval’s gentle approach has fit completely in sync with what the character needed to be to complete the development of Caesar’s (as well, her own) character. Such is the look of a male Bornean Orangutan that she could not play a female. Her subtle etching of the character is so affecting though, I don’t know if someone with testosterone could have pulled it off. Their combined performance in the last act is hauntingly beautiful.

Special mention needs to be made of Michael Giacchino’s astounding score. I have not been so moved by the music of a film since perhaps Christopher Gordon’s Master and Commander. The titles of each tune are pretty silly, but how the music works within the film is beautiful.

If there is one drawback in the film, it would have to be Harrelson’s Colonel. He’s definitely the least effectively drawn nemesis in the series. They paint on the cruelty in big heavy strokes. His humanity is limited to one picture of a little boy. It’s not enough compared to the nuance they worked so hard to achieve in the first 2 films. Before now, we didn’t root for humans to die. We wanted both groups to survive and thrive.

What Matt Reeves has created is remarkable. In directing the last two parts of a trilogy, he’s made three completely different stories and one overarching development of a character that should stand out in cinematic history. If there is one thing that the series should be embraced for, it is that we have finally pushed special effects to the point where they become an afterthought to the story that is being developed because they are so incredibly good. Bad Ape, Maurice, Blue Eyes and Caesar are merely the tip of the iceberg. I found myself thinking less and less about how they did it and more about the story than ever.

This will not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is a tragedy, to be sure, with moments of light. Not everyone will find the survival of simian kind a rooting point as humans suffer through not one, but two waves of contagion that first wipes them out and will eventually take away their voices.

Yes, they worked that in from the original series too. Remarkable. Considering the stench that the original gave off in every way, it is incredible to consider that it was good enough and groundbreaking in its own way. It’s nearly unwatchable now. But for this, we have to be thankful.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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