Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’

It’s a remarkable thing, this trilogy. Set many years prior to the events depicted in the classic original Planet of the Apes (and produced 40+ years after its release), not many (myself included) had this rebooted franchise pegged as the next great sci-fi saga in recent cinematic history; however, following the release of its third and final chapter, War for the Planet of the Apes, it’s safe to say that’s exactly what we have here. A series of films this rich and deliberative, this impeccably characterized, this technologically innovative and beautifully photographed does not come around often, let alone when they’re about an army of super apes inching their way towards a takeover of the human race and the planet they inhabit. This series had no right being any of that, and yet that’s just what it defiantly wound up being. War is perhaps the most layered, mature, and striking of the three; in a summer full of immersive genre fare and jaw-dropping spectacle, it stands alone.

Picking up a short period of time following the chaotic events of Dawn, War is set in a time in which Caesar and his tribe have regrouped and reassembled – although the emotional and physical scarring of what previously occurred involving the betrayal of rogue ape Koba still weighs heavily – before a human squadron lead by “The Colonel” (Woody Harrelson, as intense and savage as ever) strikes a devastating, irreversible blow to the community. It drives Caesar, aided by the steady hands of series stalwarts Maurice, Rocket, and Luca, to embark on a mystery-solving journey of blood-thirsty revenge, and what follows is quite extraordinary. It’s in this portion of the film where War elevates itself beyond anything in the series to date, eliciting a vibe and cinematic scale both wholly original and wonderfully familiar. The series had more or less played coy with its connective ties to the original Apes prior to this point, but War doesn’t mess around; evoking the classic iconography – from the gorgeous shot of the apes riding horseback on the beach to the all-too-familiar cages they’re eventually round up in like cattle – the film gives us what we know and love while providing just enough of an awesome spin on each throwback to make adoring fans of both eras beam with pride.

It’s what the series does with the character of Caesar, and by extension the ape friends who’ve been by his side since the beginning, that stands as its greatest triumph, however. He is a motion-capture-achieved chimpanzee played by Andy Serkis who possesses all the depth, tragedy and humanity of any single human being from any series of blockbusters that I can recall, and in War it’s the internal suffering and conflict at the center of every action he takes that imbues the film’s strongest emotional impact and propels the story forward above anything else. We care so much about him at this point, a testament to the remarkable character work and development carefully threaded through all three chapters of this epic story. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Maurice the orangutan, Caesar’s closest confidant and War’s secret MVP. He’s a big, bright orange physical presence, yes, but it’s his calm, steady demeanor and invaluable wisdom that he imparts on everyone around him that makes him especially endearing. I love that guy.

And I love this movie, no doubt the peak of a summer movie season as strong as any in recent years. It’s conclusion feels very finite and bleeds fairly seamlessly into what the eventual world of Planet of the Apes will one day look like, but it doesn’t feel like there still isn’t plenty more story to mine in this current timeline or with this current core of characters. Director Matt Reeves has proven himself so capable, I won’t lie that I’d love to see what he could do with a remake of sorts of the original film. But if this is indeed all that we get, consider me beyond satisfied; this series was that special.

Rating: ***** out of five

Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary

Runtime: 140 minutes

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by Michael Lang
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