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MOVIE REVIEW: FTN reviews War For The Planet of the Apes

July 7th, 2017 by Mark McCann Comments

War for the Planet of the Apes (12A)
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson & Steve Zahn

Caesar and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel. After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.

With the original Rise of the Planet of the Apes, film fans were treated to one of the nice surprises of modern sci-fi; a franchise that takes a risk or is perhaps overlooked by studio bean counters, and movie magic happens.

Rise was a rare gem in 2011, so much so as to seem like a fluke. So, when Dawn came in 2014, it was with higher expectations from fans, yet tentative reviewers aware that the high budget grossing of the original might inevitably enliven the interference of those aforementioned money men and safe players.

A change in director from indie man Rupert Wyatt to TV and action sequel director Matt Reeves, sporting a choppy resume at best, could have been a recipe for disaster. Yet again, those damn, dirty apes thrilled and beguiled us with deeply human stories underpinned by a morality that elsewhere can seem all too superficial when hammed.

With War of the Planet of the Apes, a tried and tested Reeves returns as director and co-writer with returning script doctor Mark Bomback. But with neither Rick Jaffa or Amanda Silver on script polishing duties, one had to wonder would the script be there? Or would it be all style and no substance.

Post-screening we needn’t have worried.

While the plot to this ape’s tale is notably simpler than its predecessors, at its core it inherits all the right notes that made those two films work. The story of a disparate band of creatures, struggling to survive in a hostile world, is a universal one. Caesar, again played by Andy Serkis, Hollywood’s most accomplished anthropomorphic actor since Lon Chaney jnr, brings a level of pathos to his character that is at times as powerful as some of Hollywood’s greats at the height of their powers. This, bolstered by the accomplishments of Weta workshop, who again shine out as one of the premier powers in special effects.

This reviewer has often bemoaned the saturation of CG in modern movies, yet here it is subtle perfection. At times the shadows and nuances captured in the faces of the apes are so subtle as to be sublime. Their trials and triumphs are so transparent as to outshine their human cast members. Karin Konoval and Terry Notary join newcomer Steve Zahn in giving their apes uniquely relatable personas; Zahn bringing an eccentricity that is both sympathetic and funny, in what is overtly a bleak film smattered with moments of euphoric triumph.

At times War threatens to lull the viewer with long silences, but these are punctuated by throttling action sequences. Character work is done in these virtually monosyllabic scenes that conjures the type of verve displayed by actors in silent films from the bygone age, or the sort of risks a Terrence Malick might take by allowing the landscape and the quiet language of the scene to do the work. The icy wilds of Vancouver under veteran Michael Seresin’s eye offer us such beautiful scenery that when paired with Michael Giaccino’s evocative score it’s hard to drift far beyond the story beats.

When the action hits it’s the sort of visceral business that is both tense and brutal. Its ramifications immediately felt, as opposed to disposable and for kicks. Woody Harrelson looks inside himself to find a flicker of Colonel Kurtz, with even more of the right madness. There’s some scenery chewing, sure. But in a film where our simian cousins are milking us for sympathy, the right sort of villain is essential. Amiah Miller’s Nova gives a literally quiet performance as that counter-balance to the moral quandary at the heart of this series; humans are imbued with a nature both self-destructive and rapacious. Miller reminds us we are kind.

Returning to the plot, it would have been easy to bookend this trilogy with a battle to end all battles. Instead we get something closer to a refugee story, that plumbs the dark history of humanity, looking to us at our worst during the depths of warfare. Amidst the mire and inhumanity there is that hope that so frequently is our guiding light. Here transposed to apes, our post-apocalyptic predecessors in what turns from a revenge film to an escape film. Then ultimately; a film about hope in the backdrop of war and atrocity.

As sci-fi goes, some of the best of the genre channels those things in us that are deeply human, whether they be good or bad. And rather than spoon feed an answer, they ask us; what do you think?

War, as a bookend to the trilogy, plays out what is perhaps one of the finest sci-fi series finales in recent years, giving us an ending that is at once bittersweet and satisfying. Setting the foundations for what long term fans have come to expect, while putting to rest the journey of a set of characters that has been an intrinsically human one; painful, while evoking sparse moments of emotional beauty.

With Caesar, Andy Serkis has brought to life one of the most sympathetic anti-heroes in all of sci-fi, and made question of one of its most enduring lines. Never again can we hear the words ‘get your hands off me, you damn dirty ape,’ without feeling the weight of their genesis. That subversion alone, is a striking achievement.

4 out of 5 Nerds

I came here in a time machine from the 1980s. The time machine was called childhood. I'm getting back there at all costs! (I also live, love, write, lift & pet cats wherever I may find them.)